**While you’re here, and before you accuse me of not engaging enough with Peterson, please check out my new post on Peterson’s book, Maps of Meaning**
I’ve been asked a few times to write something about Jordan Peterson, probably because my piece on Stefan Molyneux got more reads by a long way than anything else I’ve ever written.
I read Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life but couldn’t find anything very interesting to say about self-help for gamerbros. I’ll say a few things about this lecture: Identity Politics and the Marxist Lie of White Privilege. With a title like that, I imagine the YouTube video has attracted a wider audience than Peterson’s books. It’s this sort of thing that has made him famous.
In Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End the irascible genius Tietjens proclaims ‘I don’t read novels; I know what’s in ‘em’. His interlocutor knows better than to ask him how this can be; there’s nothing to say against such blustering arrogance. The first novel ends with the aristocratic Tietjens jumping aboard a moving train and being congratulated by the stationmaster — ‘Well caught sir!’ — while the poor Scot, Macmaster, reflects ‘that if he had done that half the station would have been yelling, “Stand away there.”’
Peterson is similarly oblivious to the social circumstances that allow him to be congratulated for speaking from almost total ignorance, where a different sort of person would be rightfully sneered off the stage. His lecture is a lesson on privilege alright, though not in the way he thinks it is. But I digress.
Since Marxism and postmodernism turn out to be the main subjects of the lecture, you’d expect Peterson might have read some Marx in preparation, and some Marxist literature, and some postmodern philosophy (whatever he takes this to be).
That he hasn’t read any Marxist literature becomes obvious early on. At around 2:48 he describes Marxism as a ‘grand narrative’; he thus finds it puzzling that it should be aligned with postmodernism, which is ‘an anti grand narrative philosophy’.
The term ‘grand narrative’, though Peterson doesn’t say so and probably doesn’t know, was introduced in Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, which also tells us early on that ‘Science has always been in conflict with narratives’. If that is so then the whole enterprise of Scientific Marxism would constitute a tradition of understanding Marx’s theory in a way that opposes it to grand narratives: a theory that seeks to replace grand narrative with hard scientific fact— this was certainly what Lenin made of the ideology critique.
Moreover, anyone lecturing on Marxism and expressing puzzlement about its alliance with movements that stand against grand narratives owes some response to the explosion of literature in the mid-twentieth century that attempted to explain just that fact— Althusser and Balibar’s Reading Capital for instance. But Peterson doesn’t know that he owes this response, because he hasn’t read the book, because he most likely doesn’t know it exists, though no doubt he knows what’s in it.
That he hasn’t read any Marx is even more obvious. Around 26:50 he gives his one primary-source quotation — the only one in the entire lecture. ‘Here’s a quotation from Marx: “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.”’ This is from a manifesto, not from any of Marx’s philosophical writings. And it’s the one line from Marx and Engels that pretty much everyone knows. Had Peterson gone on to give an original and insightful new perspective on this famous line, this would be worthy of a lecture on Marxism; instead he goes on to make facile debating-team criticisms (they had their lives and families to lose!), which show on one hand that he has no idea of the context of the quotation and on the other that he is thoroughly convinced that his audience is as pig-ignorant as he is.
As a general rule, only people who don’t know anything about Marx quote that one line and nothing else. And let’s not pass by the fact that Peterson doesn’t know when the Communist Manifesto was written. He says ‘1880 or 1890, whenever Marx wrote it.’ Marx and Engels published it in 1848: a year that nobody remotely familiar with modern European history is likely to overlook. Marx was, of course, dead by 1883.
As for Peterson’s main critique of Marxism, targeting the theory of exploitation (from around 27:45 onwards), this would be unthinkable to anyone who knew the theory. Peterson complains that it overlooks the existence of positive-sum economic interactions and wealth-creation. Yet neither fact is denied in Capital; the early chapters of Volume One give an account of exchange as a positive-sum interaction, while the whole point of the theory of surplus value and accumulation is to explain ‘wealth-creation’.
Nor does Marx overlook the fact that Peterson points out — that ‘wealth-creators’ (‘unser Geldbesitzer’) share the benefits of their wealth by dissipating it. Marx could hardly afford to ignore this point when it plays such a major role in the Smithian political economy he sought to critique; perhaps Peterson is unaware that other people actually read the stuff they criticise. The Marxist theory of exploitation, of course, requires no denial of plain economic facts; it is pretty well analytically derived from the labour theory of value. One can of course critique that, and I certainly do, but Peterson wouldn’t know the labour theory of value if it slapped him in the face screaming ‘Here I am you fucking charlatan!’.
Things don’t improve with the discussion of ‘postmodernism’.
At the start of the lecture Peterson mentions Derrida and Foucault; he never quotes them. His general line on postmodernism is that it is a picture of ‘a sociological Hobbesian nightmare’ (what role is the word ‘sociological’ playing in that sentence?). When he goes on to explain Hobbes, he does so by way of a contrast with Rousseau that might manage a pass in a high-school exam, but shows beyond reasonable doubt that — surprise, surprise — Peterson hasn’t read either Hobbes or Rousseau. He draws a contrast between the brutal Hobbesian picture of the state of nature (Peterson says ‘the basic state of mankind’ — ??) and the idyllic Rousseauist picture. I’ve seen Spark Notes instructing students to draw this contrast, but anyone who has glanced at the discourse on inequality or the first few chapters of the Social Contract knows what’s wrong with it: in Rousseau’s state of nature humans become increasingly interdependent as their material needs expand, until they end up in very much the Hobbesian situation. Peterson suggests that Hobbes and Rousseau are ‘opposites that need to be paired together in order to get a relatively comprehensive view of human nature’. This has the outward form of an intelligent thing to say, and might appear so to someone alike in ignorance, but the fact of the matter is that on the state of nature Hobbes and Rousseau are on the same side: whether that state is or becomes a war of all against all is immaterial; the political consequences are thus far the same.
When Peterson discusses ‘postmodernism’ directly, he presents it as a theory that gives power a central explanatory role. That isn’t far off the mark, if we assume he’s talking about somebody like Foucault, but Peterson doesn’t take long to hit the limits of his in-depth research. He speaks of power as inherently oppressive — as operating ‘vertically’ from an oppressing group to an oppressed group. It was of course the entire point of Foucault’s project to get away from this picture. Power for him was ‘horizontal’ — it linked agents in diffuse relations rather than operating through hierarchies, and it is wrong, Foucault insisted, to think of it as inherently repressive; as he wrote in Discipline and Punish:
We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.
Or as John Gaventa has put it:
Foucault is one of the few writers on power who recognise that power is not just a negative, coercive or repressive thing that forces us to do things against our wishes, but can also be a necessary, productive and positive force in society.
In other words, Peterson has clearly read somewhere that power is important to postmodernist theory; what he failed to notice is that the theory — at least Foucault’s theory — critiques rather than endorsing the traditional understanding of power. When Calvin Coolidge returned from church, was asked what the sermon was about, and replied ‘It was about sin, and he was aginst it’, he did twice as well as Peterson on ‘postmodernism’.
One thing I could say in Peterson’s defence. Around 10:30 he discusses Aayan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel, ‘which is a great book’. He intones, ‘She came from’, then pauses, ‘…Africa’. He couldn’t remember the country. I have yet to meet anyone else who read Ali’s book and failed to remember the long passages about Somali life, culture, and politics. On the other hand, I believe that Peterson did read the book, so perhaps he has read others relevant to his lecture and suffers from a preternaturally terrible memory. But then he should know that and use some memory aids. And the question is, why is somebody operating at this level attracting such large and admiring audiences?
Of course we all know the answer. His audience consists largely of white men, whose pride has been hurt by the growing recognition that their positions are the product of privilege and not only of achievement — or ‘competence’ to use one of Peterson’s favourite words. In presenting this recognition as a piece of mythology — a collectivist, Marxist, postmodernist conspiracy — Peterson promises to restore some of this pride. On the other hand, it is undignified to participate in the pitiful pageant of such colossally transparent intellectual fraud, standing around cheering ‘well caught, sir!’ at a man whose lectures are one long insult to his audience’s intelligence. All I can tell Peterson’s acolytes is that sooner or later they’ll have to choose between their pride and their dignity.