“Almost all ideas are wrong,” Peterson remarked in his opening critique of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Indeed, it is far easier to speak of what things aren’t than what they are. Yesterday, April 19, 2019, brought us the Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek debate. This meeting of very different minds was unimaginable back in 2015, and unthinkable as recently as last year. On the face of it, these two thinkers, despite their common psychoanalytic influence, could not be further apart. Jordan Peterson, an overtly scientific thinker who uses Christian stories and ideas to help explain deep psychological truths, is a pragmatic, almost pastoral thinker, whose driving motivation is to tell his audience that the most important and worthwhile pursuit in life is not the attainment of happiness, the mere accretion of wealth, or an unbridled wielding of power. Peterson tells us that rather it is the pursuit of meaning, and that we can only live meaningful lives if we take on responsibility, fix what is immediately fixable, aim at a higher goal, and shoulder the heavy burden of our own existences. Speaking the truth and acting responsibly are the only ways to, when tragedy strikes, have a depth of spirit that can withstand it, without making us resentful. This is the core of Peterson’s message as I understand it. Slavoj Zizek, on the other hand, against the pragmatic, simple spoken language of the sciences, is a bonafide philosopher, touting the ideas of obscure, very difficult thinkers like Lacan and Hegel. Instead of Peterson’s focused study of the individual through the lens of psychology and myth, Zizek employs techniques from psychoanalysis and critical theory to discern the role ideology takes in shaping the individual. To risk over-extending this comparison, I simply want to say it is long past due for Peterson to speak with a philosopher and thinker of Zizek’s caliber and influence. And, as we will see, their differences are dwarfed by what they hold in common.
Already, per usual, there are a number of “think pieces” on this debate, many of which are all form without content, never touching what was said in the debate itself, but continually drawing attention to public perceptions of both thinkers simply to reinforce them. And, as has become a matter of course, many academics who have commented simply do so to draw strict lines of demarcation concerning subject matter. Though as helpful as this is for research purposes, it is of little use for people who are trying to think about what it means to be a responsible person today. There is a time to discover and taxonomize facts, and there is a time to figure out what they mean. For the most part, I have found academics have no idea how to proceed with the latter, so they die on the hills of the former. When you mummify thinking, your ideas fester in the crypt you die in, hidden in the deserts of the world.
Below, I just want to summarize the content of the debate, without too much commentary, so readers can use this as a springboard or resource to understand what was said in the debate for themselves. Before I get to what they have in common, I want to examine two points Zizek made that, I think, are valid challenges to Peterson’s ideas, although unfortunately these remarks were only in passing. Then I will summarize the debate, going through the opening of both thinkers, then moving very briefly through their responses, and finally ending with a few concluding remarks.
Slavoj Zizek’s Critiques of Peterson
1. Should competency ground political power?
One of Peterson’s most central and persuasive ideas is that functioning hierarchies are not grounded in power but rather competency. Sure, it is true, some people can weasel their way to the top of some hierarchies through deceit or brute force, but this isn’t a stable organization of a hierarchy. Because the prestige that comes with being at the top is unearned, such a power grab typically is short lived, as the resentment, distrust, and jealousy of those at lesser ranks grows.
So what does this have to do with political power? To the social justice warriors who, because of the pernicious influence of patriarchy, racism, and general inequality, want to tear everything down and start a different system from scratch, Peterson says we should first be mindful of the political organizations we have. Though by no means perfect, we should look beyond the color of skin or gender or wealth of our leaders to ask whether they are competent. And indeed many are.
Fair point, I think. But the question Zizek poses is whether competency should be what justifies the attainment and use of political power in the first place. Zizek raises an interesting question here, one I haven’t heard Peterson contend with before. What might the belief that political power is grounded in competency lead to? Answer: A select few making all the decisions, with secret meetings, uttering ethereal words, behind closed doors because we, the less competent (or perhaps driven by other things like the success of our businesses or the wellbeing of our families), get on with our lives. If we divide politics by competence, creating a pseudo-division of labor, perhaps we will end up with an ill-informed, sedentary public.
Zizek mentions that the Greeks recognized this problem, and so with their direct popular vote also integrated elements of chance, like casting lots, to choose their leaders. The main difficulty of positing competency as the warrant for political power is that its logic perhaps leads us down a road of totalitarianism. Let us worry about our own affairs, get on with the business of everyday life now that, rest assured, the competent wield the power to direct us. One point both Zizek and Peterson make is that nobody, whether the Proletariat, professional philosophers, scientists, or politicians are qualified to make decisions of the complexity that actually exists in politics. It follows that it cannot be about competence. I now get why Zizek mentioned more than a few times the need for an international coalition. The kind of decisions that must be made for us to reckon with climate change, rising populist authoritarian regimes, and refugee crises are just too multidimensional for even a criteria of competency to be established. So it is an interesting point. The point of critiquing competence is to say our political involvement should not consist in having us sit on the sideline and judge our politicians’ decisions, it is rather that we are to be invigorated by our freedom, and its burden, to bear responsibility for the way the world is going, and speak the truth as we see it, and assume that everyone else who is talking knows something we don’t. In other words, that we perhaps embody the virtues Peterson has been espousing all along (honesty, courage, truth, etc.) might be what is required to keep politics in check and functional rather than centering our political discourse exclusively on electing the most competent people, whatever this might mean.
I know Peterson would have many reservations and qualifications about my exposition here, but I also can’t help but think about the time of Trump’s election. As I was living in Indiana at the time, I heard over and over how Trump’s fortune indicated a certain genius, and how, seeing how he is such an astute businessman, we should simply believe that once he’s in office he will surround himself by people more competent than himself, to help make decisions regarding the subjects he is ignorant about. History has shown us, and is showing us, where this identification of competence with political and economic power can lead.
2. What is equality?
Peterson is well known for making the distinction between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. This has for me been the way to understand the issue of equality in the present political climate. It seems on the face of it simply the most reasonable position, to argue and strive for equality of opportunity and against a political system that institutes policies that guarantee equality of outcome. Why? Because equality of opportunity would mean that competence wins the day, rather than, with equality of outcome, an artificial leveling, not of the playing field, but of talent and human potential. The Western idea of meritocracy, distant and ghostly as it may seem today, will live or die, will hinge, on our ability to give the people who deserve it, who are competent, the opportunity to do what they’re good at doing, for the benefit of everyone.
This distinction may be too limiting, however. Zizek has offered what I think is a more nuanced way of thinking about equality. As Zizek said, “Equality can also mean…creating the space for as many as possible individuals to develop their different potentials.” Though perhaps more vague than Peterson’s conceptualization, it does allow a useful tension between opportunity and outcome. I think it’s closer to what some liberals are looking for. It’s great that we are focusing on getting everyone a seat at the table, but is this just a charade if we also don’t optimize society for the development of potential? Let us aim to both give everyone equal opportunities, but let us also target those areas of education, income, and social infrastructure that severely limit the potentials of people in minority populations. I think Zizek’s articulation can help us see this point more clearly. If we only target equality of opportunity, it leaves out the people who have been stuck in systems of inequality. There has to be a tension between outcome and opportunity. For if we answer on the side of outcome only, then we have the opposite of a meritocracy and a leveling of humanity’s potential for growth. And if we stand on the side of opportunity, then we can safely maintain the status quo, and this benefits the people who have access to resources that others, by the very structure of our economy and politics, do not.
Let us move now to a brief summary of the debate, the main points Peterson and Zizek made, and other points of agreement and contention.
A Summary of the Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek Debate
Jordan Peterson and the Problems with the Communist Manifesto
Peterson began the debate with the remark that most ideas are wrong, and that the sign of “typical thinking,” as Jung named it, is to simply accept a thought as it occurs to you, to never ask the question of its veracity. Peterson thinks Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were guilty of this in the Manifesto. And he has ten reasons why he thinks this is true and why the Manifesto is ultimately a shallow political tract.
- It views all of history as primarily a class struggle. But class is only one element of the human struggle. There are spiritual, moral, psychological, and many kinds of other struggles that have characterized human history, particularly the struggle with nature. To reduce history to “class struggle” is too simplistic.
- Ultimately, the problem with the view above is that it confuses the symptoms for the cause, Peterson thinks, because it isn’t a pessimistic enough view of history. Struggles of hierarchy are not simply social problems, they’re biological. Hierarchy is enshrined in the organization of animals everywhere, and it’s inescapable. If that’s the case, then we cannot lay “class struggle” at the feet of capitalism as a solely capitalist phenomenon, but should rather understand it as the economic instantiation of a bio-universal conflict.
- A binary class struggle is a very bad idea. Humans are too complex to divide into a simple binary. There are good and bad people in every group.
- The idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat ignores this complexity. It assumes that proletariats won’t be corrupted by power simply because they’re part of the proletariat group. As we saw, that was not the case.
- What makes you think you can take a social system, artificially constrain its direction and development into the hands of a few, and that it will continue to work as a system? What makes you think that any group of people, by simply being part of a specific group, have the wisdom and ability to make decisions about systems that affect the lives of millions and, now, billions of people?
- Marx assumed that nothing the capitalist did was valid labor. That may be true if you’re living in an aristocratic society where the hedonistic rich lay inebriated and chase prostitutes all day. But it cannot speak to the CEO of a company who makes strategic decisions to grow his or her business. For Peterson, if you think a capitalist’s work does not qualify as valid labor, either you know nothing about how an actual business works or you refuse to understand it.
- Peterson doesn’t understand Marx’s problem with profit. Marx thinks it is theft. Peterson agrees that it is theft sometimes, but not all the time. How can you grow an enterprise without profit? Other than growth, he thinks profit also provides good constraints on wasted labor. There are forms of stupidity that, if you engage in, the market will eradicate you for following, he says.
- In Marx, there is an assumption that the proletariat would be hyper-productive. What incentivizes work after property and profit are erased? This question is unanswered, he says..
- Another assumption in the Manifesto is that if you equally distribute material goods across all dimensions (assuming there are enough resources to do this in the first place), then it will equally motivate everyone to engage in meaningful, creative labor. But, we’re all incentivized and vivified by different things. For some people it’s competition. For others it is cooperation. And, besides all this, it’s not clear that equilibrium is the goal of human action. With Dostoevsky Peterson asks if, when we’re given everything in the world, we might undermine it or destroy it just to have an adventure. Maybe humans are built for trouble?
- Marx admits repeatedly that there has never been a system as productive and effective as capitalism. If Marx really believes that, isn’t it logical to let the system play itself out, if you want material security for everyone? If it really is the most productive and effective system so far in human history, how will destroying it benefit us when we need productivity to secure material wealth?
In concluding his remarks, Peterson points out that we have never created an economic system that didn’t, in one way or another, produce inequality. He says, “One thing you can say about capitalism is that, absolutely it produces inequality, which it absolutely does. It also produces wealth, and all the other systems don’t! They just produce inequality!”
Zizek’s Opening Remarks
Zizek begins by pointing out that it is ironic that both he and Peterson, sharing the stage on opposite ends of the question, are both marginalized by the official academic community. He goes on to examine the question of the relation between capitalism, communism, and wealth, saying that China is one of the greatest achievements in human history, in terms of wealth generation and productivity. They have combined a sort-of communism with capitalism to do this. And yet are they any happier for it?
Happiness, Authority, and Nihilism
Happiness as a goal is problematic, Zizek thinks, because we’re very good at getting in the way of our own happiness. He thinks happiness is created by the distance between us and the things we desire, so that the worst thing that can happen to a person is to actually get what they desire. Happiness is created by the inability to obtain this desire, so long as it lasts.
Although it was possible in the past for politics to marry the performance of duty with the attainment of happiness, Zizek thinks we have moved beyond this possibility today. Modernity in part means that we have moved beyond any authority that guarantees the meaning of our tasks. Modernity means that we carry this burden, and so the burden itself is freedom. We are responsible for our own burden of freedom and for the meaning of it. No authority can confer worth on it. Traditional authority has lost power in this way.
Conservatives interpret this loss of power as occurring because of the death of God. But for Zizek, the irony of Dostoevsky’s warning against nihilism, that without God all things are permissible, is that, as is the lesson of today’s terrorism, with God all things are permissible. Everything is permitted for those who claim to act on behalf of God, and with Jordan Peterson, Slavoj Zizek would agree this is also a lesson of Stalinism, when communists believed they were enacting the meaning of history, and this justified the deaths of tens of millions of people.
The fact that this irony has come about with the death of God means for Zizek that the problem of nihilism is deeper than the religious/atheist distinction. Nihilism is found in ideology. And the big problem of ideology, rather religious or atheistic, is how it makes good people do bad things.
So how do we get out of the problem of ideology? With Peterson, Zizek thinks it is by taking up our burden of freedom and being responsible for it. But we also must beware of a creeping problem, one we see, for instance, in social justice camps: we must never fall in love with our sufferings and think that they are indicators of our authenticity. Just because suffering is real and not imagined doesn’t mean that it cannot become pathological. Slavoj uses the example of a jealous husband who, even if he is correct that his wife was sleeping with another man, has a pathological jealousy, because it is the only way for him to sustain his identity. It’s similar to the Nazis: their ideology made them believe they were unified wholes, so any division had to be blamed on outside intruders. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves to achieve a false unity of self. This is at the root of pathologies, and, here, Peterson agrees.
Zizek sees this playing out in the way the direction of capitalism undermines the protestant ethic. As culture becomes commodified, it projects its emptiness onto an external cause. This is how Zizek understands the inability of liberals to ask how liberalism itself has given rise to Trump. He sees the ideology derived from capitalism as undergirding both liberalism and conservatism to some extent. For this reason, Zizek wants to call simple egalitarianism into question. We should not blame hedonist egotists for our problems, and here I assume he’s speaking of someone that might be found in the 1%. We shouldn’t blame them because the opposite of a hedonist, egoist self-love is not altruism but resentment and envy, because these things make the egoist act against his or her own self interest. There is a spiritual element to egotism, he believes. And this is why we should call into question simple egalitarianism. Egalitarianism can secretly invert what is supposed to benefit others: “I renounce so others might not have it.” Zizek sees this in how the genuine concerns of the #MeToo movement are many times filtered through resentment and an obsession with perpetrators. Here again, we have the workings of ideology, which tells us there are simple binaries, and that the good group is a unified whole, and all divisions and problems are caused by outside perpetrators.
Should we, then, simply drop egalitarianism altogether? Zizek says no, because we should envision equality as “creating the space for as many as possible individuals to develop their different potentials.” In the remarks above, I mention how this is a great point. I think it allows a tension to exist that will help us better understand the relation between opportunity and outcome and consequently move us beyond simple dichotomies that in reality do not exist.
The Question of Competencies and Hierarchies
Moving on, Zizek questions whether we can say today’s inequalities are grounded in different competencies, for competencies can be determined in part by the economy and politics, which are both in turn influenced by human actions. This is to say that none of our systems of social organization are without the consequences of human biases, and markets are not simple apolitical forces.
He also questions what he calls Peterson’s “Lobster Theory.” Zizek thinks it is too simplistic to say nature is arranged into hierarchies, he thinks rather that there are also many improvisations. For example, sexual instincts are biological. But, he says, look what we’ve done with them: they’re not confined to mating season, and they can become a permanent obsession, turning into a metaphysical passion that perturbs biological rhythms.
Furthermore, the main import of Christianity is not the kinds of hierarchies it has established and the kinds of competencies it has as a result created. It’s message is not that despite our cultural differences the same divine spark dwells in everyone. It’s rather that this divine spark enables us to create Holy Spirit, a community in which hierarchic family values are at least somewhat abolished. Democracy, he thinks, extends this logic into the political space. From Christianity, Zizek picks up this idea that despite all differences of competence, we should not give all power to competent experts. It was the communists who did this, where the unfortunate victims of the USSR, among other regimes, have shown us they were given neither a hierarchy to climb nor the freedom to develop. It seems that Zizek is saying political authorities do not need competence because the authentic function of a master, in a political sense, is to force us into freedom. Freedom and responsibility hurt, they require effort. We are not naturally free. And to make the function of the political authority solely into a competent taskmaster is to forget the mysteriousness of the relationship between power and authority. Zizek points to Kierkegaard here, who wrote that if a child says he’ll obey his father because he is competent, that undermines the father’s authority. The same logic applies to Christ himself: He was justified because he was God’s son, not because he was competent. The joke is that every good theology student can putter matters better than Christ.
The point, finally, is that a lobster may have hierarchy, undoubtedly, but he does not have authority in this sense. The wager of democracy is not against competence, but that political power and competence should be kept apart. I take this to mean that envisioning politics as a game of competence diminishes our notion of freedom in a political sense, and makes freedom a phenomenon merely confined to the private sphere. Whereas for Zizek, because democracy separates competence from power, it holds them in tension, and is always calling on every citizen to bear their freedom themselves, and to act as a responsible person who must decide whether power is justifiably wielded.
Current Political Issues
Moving on to current political and ecological issues, Zizek admits we are in a dire situation, and that there are no simple solutions here. But it is problematic to say—as we might with Peterson’s position should we follow him and let the competent decide—that the experts, the scientists, should tell us how to fix it. Even if we sidestep the issue of corporate interests, who is to say that they should decide? Furthermore, radical measures can bring about unforeseen catastrophic consequences. Zizek says, “in such times of urgency, when we know we have to act but do not know how to act, thinking is needed.” Reversing Marx’s dictum, he says that we all too fast changed the world, perhaps we should try to interpret it.
Zizek moves to articulate a few reactions to our globalized world and the problems that haunt us. On the one hand there is a conservative reaction to build walls and separate ourselves from everyone else. But he thinks this is how refugees are created. A conservative will come along and say, “Sure, same sex marriage is okay in your country, but not mine.” This is how we undermine the notion of international responsibility: people are allowed to be different so long as they don’t commune with us.
On the other hand, we have “global capitalism with a human face.” People like Bill Gates and George Soros support progressive policies and conduct humanitarian work. Zizek thinks this is merely a symptomatic treatment to the problems of globalism. In terms of the refugee crisis, the solution is not to have all the rich countries in the world to take in all the poor countries in the world, but to fix the problems that cause massive waves of immigrants in the first place.
Ultimately, Zizek thinks we will probably continue to slide toward the apocalypse. He ends his opening by saying, “When somebody says there is a light coming at the end of the tunnel, I reply, ‘Yes, and it’s probably another train headed towards us.’”
The Rest of the Debate
Much of what was said in the openings is not moved beyond later in the debate. There are some clarifications, however.
- He isn’t defending capitalism, but does think capitalism is the worst form of economics except every other form ever created.
- With Zizek, it isn’t obvious to Peterson that we can solve the problems that confront us.
- He doesn’t think it is right to commodify every element of life, and that capitalism pushes us in that direction.
- Happiness shouldn’t be seen as a goal, but as the byproduct of the pursuit of a goal. It is probably best conceived as the absence of misery.
- Shallow consumerism, materialism, should not be laid at the feet of capitalism, but should rather be understood as elements of the struggles of human existence in general.
Peterson asks Zizek to give an alternative to capitalism, and reiterates that he thinks the proper path forward is individual moral responsibility aimed at the highest good. But this is no simple individualism like that espoused by Ayn Rand. Each person must aim at what is good for themselves, but also in such a way that it is good for their family and their society, and in such a way that it expands their ability to do good in the future.
Zizek follows up by explaining he wasn’t defending communism, and that he agrees with much of what Peterson has said about the Manifesto. Zizek also agrees with Peterson that postmodernists have substituted the marxist binary of oppressor/oppressed of the bourgeois and proletariat with one group by another. He clarifies that he isn’t advocating for Marxism per se, but wants us to return back beyond Marx to Hegel, for the danger in Marxism is the teleological action, which is this notion that we can stand in the present and see our actions as necessitated by the meaning and force of history. But for Hegel, whom Marx extensively borrowed from, this doesn’t exist. For Hegel, every act is new, and there’s no telling what it means or what it will cause. There is no position in which you ever understand the full implications of your actions. Furthermore, Hegel thinks that philosophy can grasp a social order only when it’s in decay, and for that reason cannot forecast the future. It remains a radical openness, a disposition of thoughtfulness toward the way things are going.
An Extreme Irony
At one point in the debate, Peterson asks Zizek why he associates his name with Marxism when he’s such an original thinker. Peterson thinks the unfortunate reality is that any support of Marxism, especially directed towards those that are young, is likely to be read as support for the most radical proclivities of Marxism as they’re outlined in the Communist Manifesto. He says, “By attempting to rescue the sheep, you’ve invited the dragon into the house.”
The point, heard by anyone who has followed Peterson, is of extreme irony. Much of the criticism I have heard concerning Peterson is how his ideas are so easily co-opted by white supremacists and people on the alt-right. Peterson’s response has been that he is not responsible for the ways in which his ideas are misused. I think we should all agree with this point, particularly as it pertains to the words of people who are dead. As Zizek has said, when things are urgent and confused, it is not time to act, but time to think. And it seems that Peterson could benefit from reading more of Zizek’s work on Marx, instead of proclaiming the tradition as guilty by association.
I think this debate was a fascinating display of what can happen when two radically different people come together to discuss their perspectives in a mutually respectful way. I have learned more than a few things by listening to Zizek (and now plan to read his works), and I can see a few issues of simplicity (if not ambiguity) in the way Peterson conceptualizes hierarchy and competence as they pertain to politics and the economy. It was surprising that Zizek and Peterson converged on so many issues, particularly on the central role of individual responsibility for confronting the problems that face us. When we play with the lives of others, as Peterson said, it is not always the case that we pay for our mistakes, although someone always does. But when we fail in our own lives, it is always we who pay the price. So, in closing, I think the words of Jung quoted in the debate are enough to invigorate thought, if at least for a while, and shed light on the meaning of this debate, “if you take a personal problem seriously enough, you will solve a social problem.”