I’m going to sum up my final objections to Jordan Peterson and move on, because I’ve got other things to talk about.
Real ideological diversity
I’m going to begin with this quote from economist Richard Wolff, referring to his teaching of Marxist economics in university:
34:15: “I think, if the universities and colleges had a commetment to diversity of perspective the way they now at least say they have with diversity of gender and race and all of that, then we would have had people like me teaching–lots more of them than I am; many like me–teaching. And then we would have at least confronted a generation of students with the alternatives that they could have then thought about and made up their own minds. But this country has never, in my lifetime, had the confidence in its own people to give them real freedom of choice in learning. They’ve given them a very restricgted diet and we live with the consequences.”
This is an odd complaint considering Peterson’s contention that entire disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, biology, history, not to mention law and education, are intent on indoctrinating unsuspecting students with “postmodern Neo-Marxism.” Apparently the only place on a college campus where you won’t hear about Marx is the economics department!
I read this as saying that universities use diversity of gender/ethnic groups as a screen to cover their lack of diversity on actual intellectual ideas which are threatening to the ruling class. I agree. As I’ve said before, identity politics is a great way of neutering the Left.
Yet people are convinced “Marxists” have taken over some of the largest corporations in America even while entire areas of the country (including the national government) are effectively one party rule by Republicans, a party farther to the right than any other party existing in the developed world.
The Real Cultural Marxists:
This article about the programmer named Christopher Wylie whose ideas led to the founding of Cambridge Analytica and who contributed to Trump’s victory, has been widely read in the wake of the scandals surrounding that company. I found this part to be most interesting given the right wing demonization of cultural Marxism and handwringing over things like gay marriage:
A few months later, in autumn 2013, Wylie met Steve Bannon. At the time, he was editor-in-chief of Breitbart, which he had brought to Britain to support his friend Nigel Farage in his mission to take Britain out of the European Union.
What was he like?
“Smart,” says Wylie. “Interesting. Really interested in ideas. He’s the only straight man I’ve ever talked to about intersectional feminist theory. He saw its relevance straightaway to the oppressions that conservative, young white men feel.”
Wylie meeting Bannon was the moment petrol was poured on a flickering flame. Wylie lives for ideas. He speaks 19 to the dozen for hours at a time. He had a theory to prove. And at the time, this was a purely intellectual problem. Politics was like fashion, he told Bannon.
“[Bannon] got it immediately. He believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’ to the moment when everyone is wearing them? That was the inflection point he was looking for.”
It was Bannon who took this idea to the Mercers: Robert Mercer – the co-CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, who used his billions to pursue a rightwing agenda, donating to Republican causes and supporting Republican candidates – and his daughter Rebekah.
Nix and Wylie flew to New York to meet the Mercers in Rebekah’s Manhattan apartment.
“She loved me. She was like, ‘Oh we need more of your type on our side!’”
“The gays. She loved the gays. So did Steve [Bannon]. He saw us as early adopters. He figured, if you can get the gays on board, everyone else will follow. It’s why he was so into the whole Milo [Yiannopoulos] thing.”
It seems like a sort of projection–create a conspiracy theory about evil Marxists manipulating the culture for their political agenda and you cover the fact that you are actually doing what you are accusing your opponents of doing! Note that Breitbart is one of the major outlets pushing of the cultural Marxist conspiracy theory while at the same time believing that “politics is donwstream from culture;” supposedly the central idea of cultural Marxism. However, although the vast cultural Marxist conspiracy on campuses remains in the realm of speculation, Bannon’s and Mercer’s actions are actually documented.
So who’s really manipulating culture to their own ends here, college professors, or the people who, you know, actually wield political power in the real world? Personally, I’m more afraid of Cambridge Analytica and Breitbart than postmodernist professors or transgender student activists on campus.
Is the PC Threat Exaggerated?
I suspect that the campus free-speech threat is greatly exaggerated for political purposes. Consider this quote from Danieli Bolelli, a teacher and writer based in Los Angeles on the Joe Rogan podcast:
“I think a lot of this stuff is also a little bit media created in the sense that, ‘Let’s find the most batshit crazy person on that side; let’s put the spotlight on them,’ which makes everybody go, ‘What the fuck, who are those crazy people?’ It’s kind of like if you were to pick the Westboro Baptist Church and make it be representative of Christianity. It’s not, but if you keep putting the spotlight there, you’ll create this perception [which will] create a backlash and it becomes this thing where…”
“Like, that’s one of the funny things that I was noticing, because…I really don’t like political correctness. I really don’t like academia. There are ten thousand of these things where I’m completely on board with not liking some of these things.”
“But then there’s another side where…I have been teaching at university since 2001. I don’t think I’ve seen once a case of the kind of political correctness that I see in articles in media. Not once. I was doing the math. I had probably, maybe 11,000 students in my classes over the course of those years. I haven’t had one person ever defend hard-core Communism, or make an argument…even among my colleagues which I have issues with for other reasons, that’s never been one of the things.”
“I keep hearing about it, I keep reading about it in papers, but why is it when that’s how I make my living–I’m on college campuses all the time–I hardly ever see it?”
“I’m not saying that it’s not true; of course these stories true. There’s no argument. But what I’m wondering is how much do they get blown out of proportion because you get clicks, because it makes for an interesting narrative which then some people also live off that kind of narrative. How much of it is where you are putting a spotlight on and making a rare exception be the norm versus how much it’s a real thing?”
“I mean, I teach in Southern California. Santa Monica is one of the most liberal places around. If this thing is as dominant as advertised, I should be running into it all the time, right? And I don’t like that stuff so I would be sensitive…I would be paying attention. And I don’t see it. So I’m like, ‘Hmmm, what’s going on here?'”
“…I am not arguing that they [Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein] are wrong, they’re completely right. My issue is from there to arguing that this is this super prevalent thing. It’s like, from one story to say instead there’s a communist conspiracy to brainwash us all, we are starting from a completely understandable presence and taking it twenty-five steps too far.”
“I agree. But I think what’s happening is more of these unusual situations are occurring and so people are terrified of this spreading like wildfire across the country. Because kids are very easily influenced. And they’re also idealistic. They want to change the world.”
What’s the truth? Bolelli’s experience is backed up by data:
As Acadia University political science professor Jeffrey Sachs points out, according to a General Social Survey (GSS) dataset, “young people aged 18-34 are the most tolerant of potentially offensive speech and trending upward,” meaning not only that young people are already the most tolerant of offensive speech, but that they’re getting more tolerant…
A Heterodox Academy analysis of the FIRE disinvitation data shows that the most successful attempts to shut down speakers have come from right-leaning groups shutting down speech with which they don’t agree, but this hasn’t stopped pundits and politicians from seeing the student left as the gravest threat to free speech.
While “scalp hunting” is not anything I endorse, these have more the character of “witch hunts” than any kind of Leftist dogma. Witch hunts are a sad part of human nature, and appear to be prevalent in the United States for some reason. Remember, that Communists and anarchists were the primary victims of witch hunts during the twentieth century. While unfounded accusations hurled at innocent people are always a bad thing, is this really more prevalent now than at any time in the past? Or is it more playing to white male insecurity and fear of quotas in a time of disappearing job opportunities? After all, in the 1960’s, Leftist radicals set bombs off on campuses! Professors threatened by the “extreme left” end up as millionaires. Those menaced by the extreme right end up in the morgue (e.g. Heather Heyer; Anders Breivik’s and Dylan Roof’s victims, etc.).
And yet, as Rogan opined earlier in the episode:
What’s fascinating to me about human beings of today is I’ve never seen a time where people are more interested in other people doing what they want them to do. Like, other people thinking the way they want them to think; other people behaving the way they want them to…People, it seems to me are more concerned with controlling people’s expression and thinking today than ever before. And even more so on the left.
I’m seeing this interesting trend today where people…it’s almost like we don’t like where things are headed. We don’t like what’s happening, we don’t like who the president is, so people are being real adamant about enforcing certain types of behavior. And that in turn, just like we were talking about people suppressing certain types of alcohol, that in turn …makes people rebel.
I feel like there’s more people leaning Right today than ever before. And I attribute it entirely to the people on the Left.
Yet, the data shows that this is factually untrue:
For nearly 50 years, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked Americans about their tolerance for offensive speech. Some questions include: Should an anti-American Muslim cleric be permitted to teach in a public school? Should the local library stock books hostile to religion? On almost every question, young people aged 18 to 34 are the most likely to support free speech...Not only are young people the most likely to express tolerance for offensive speech, but with almost every question posed by the GSS, each generation of young people has been more tolerant than the last…
And it’s definitely not “spreading like wildfire,” despite what Rogan promotes on his show:
[T]hese incidents are rare. Take the phenomenon of blocking invited speakers from speaking on campus, also known as no-platforming. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported 35 no-platforming attempts in 2017; out of those, 19 succeeded. In a country with over 4,700 schools, that hardly constitutes a crisis.
Finally, despite claims that college administrators are increasingly coddling students with speech codes, FIRE shows that the opposite is the case. The number of universities with restrictive speech codes has been dropping each year for the past decade and is currently at an all-time low. Most universities are not the ideological safe spaces their critics imagine.
In fact, our speech is often much more restricted off campus than on. Consider the workplace, where most non-students spend the bulk of their time when not at home. Once you’re on the job, most First Amendment rights disappear. The things you say, the clothing you wear, even the bumper stickers on the car you parked in the company lot — all can be restricted by private-sector employers. Perhaps the reason campus free speech controversies can sound so strange is because few of us are aware of how much we are already shielded from hateful or offensive speech.
The Campus Free Speech Crisis is a Myth. Here are the Facts (Washington Post)
In other words, the right-wing propaganda, pitched mainly at a demographic that has never set foot on a college campus or a corporate boardroom, is working as intended.
The propaganda tells us: Don’t worry about your job going away. Don’t worry about not being able to access health care. Don’t worry about all the people dying in your town from Fentanyl. Worry about the real threat: liberals who want to control your speech. Propaganda works.
I’ve also pointed out numerous instances of right-wing political correctness that stifles speech, yet the partisan desire — especially on the right — to manufacture fear of a particularly “illiberal left” is an important part of the conservative playbook in the Trump era. This despite the fact that President Donald Trump has openly attempted to use the power of the presidency and the resources of government to silence athletes and journalists he doesn’t like. Data is unlikely to change this attitude…being “anti-PC” is now effectively a form of tribalist identity politics. When I draw attention to right-wing threats to freedom of speech, these counterexamples — whether data-based or anecdotal — tend to threaten anti-PC identity and cause membership to close ranks.
If we consider the rise not only of anti-college views in popular media, but in organizations that seem to exist primarily to spread anti-college, anti-student and anti-faculty propaganda — like Turning Point USA or Campus Reform — it becomes clear that characterizing the campus left as “against free speech” appeals to large numbers of people who otherwise care little about quotidian campus affairs. Anti-PC and anti-college identity politics align with the faux-populism driving broader right-wing politics today.
Because of such propaganda, conservatives who see themselves, in some ways rightly, as victims of “the elite” are able to position themselves as fighting a scary, authoritarian, left-wing caricature. Indeed, the only way it’s possible to see left-wing college students as a group whose power rivals that of the presidency or the billionaire donor class is by embracing the cartoon image of lefty students as little authoritarians, and promoting it despite counterevidence. The political investment in the myth of the authoritarian college student is simply more powerful than even the most comprehensive data analyses on the subject.
Peterson is virulently anti-Communist and anti-Marxist, which to him are essentially the same thing. He insists that “Marxist” philosophy is based primarily on envy of the successful and inevitably leads to the gulags and reeducation camps.
This article cast aspersions on that rigid black-and-white thinking and is worth a read:
Since nuance in the story of 20th-century communism might ‘reduce the ease of our thoughts and the clarity of our feelings’, anti-communists will attack, dismiss or discredit any archival findings, interviews or survey results recalling Eastern Bloc achievements in science, culture, education, health care or women’s rights. They were bad people, and everything they did must be bad; we invert the ‘halo’ terminology and call this the ‘pitchfork effect’. Those offering a more nuanced narrative than one of unending totalitarian terror are dismissed as apologists or useful idiots. Contemporary intellectual opposition to the idea that ‘bad people are all bad’ elicits outrage and an immediate accusation that you are no better than those out to rob us of our ‘God-given rights’.
In 1984, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that you could be ‘anti anti-communism’ without being in favour of communism…In other words, you could stand up against bullies such as Joseph McCarthy without defending Joseph Stalin. If we carefully analyse the arguments of those attempting to control the historical narrative of 20th-century communism, this does not mean that we are apologising for, or excusing the atrocities or the lost lives of millions of men and women who suffered for their political beliefs.
What is the real reason for such Red-baiting and scare mongering, and why has it increased so markedly?
Conservative and nationalist political leaders in the US and across Europe already incite fear with tales of the twin monsters of Islamic fundamentalism and illegal immigration. But not everyone believes that immigration is a terrible threat, and most Right-wing conservatives don’t think that Western countries are at risk of becoming theocratic states under Sharia law. Communism, on the other hand, provides the perfect new (old) enemy. If your main policy agenda is shoring up free-market capitalism, protecting the wealth of the superrich and dismantling what little is left of social safety nets, then it is useful to paint those who envision more redistributive politics as wild-eyed Marxists bent on the destruction of Western civilisation.
What better time to resurrect the spectre of communism? As youth across the world become increasingly disenchanted with the savage inequalities of capitalism, defenders of the status quo will stop at nothing to convince younger voters about the evils of collectivist ideas. They will rewrite history textbooks, build memorials, and declare days of commemoration for the victims of communism – all to ensure that calls for social justice or redistribution are forever equated with forced labour camps and famine.
Peterson’s anti-communist zealotry and conflating political correctness with Marxism is a very useful message for those afraid that people may start questioning the increasing distribution of income upward. Peterson’s message is: don’t complain, don’t participate, just focus on climbing the existing hierarchy. This may be why so many deep pockets are willing to contribute to his Patreon account.
Are identity politics necessarily bad? Isn’t that what all politics is? After all, almost every policy will net winners and losers. Shouldn’t we care which group our representatives are in? That our neighbors are in? That we are in? Almost every politician will try and claim affiliation with their constituents. How could they not?
…all politics is identity politics. It is not just the Left that appeals to people based on their background and identity, all ideologies do so. All politicians campaign by highlighting their similarities with the voters, their common identity and by claiming to best represent the people. The Right is just as reliant on identity politics.
Think about a typical political campaign, regardless of political party. How does a candidate present themselves? They usually begin by emphasising their connection to the constituency and how long they’ve lived there. It’s certainly a benefit if they were born there and voters react negatively to “outsiders”. Then they’ll show their bond with the community, their participation in local events, traditions etc. Always the emphasis is on how similar they are to the constituents, how much they have in common with the voters. ‘Vote for me because I’m just like you, I can best represent you because I have gone through the same experiences you have’. They’ll show their bond with local industries and interest groups, their shared religion and patriotism (especially in America).
All of this identity politics. All politicians aim to get voters to identify with them, the only difference is method. It’s only a question of whether they highlight their common race, religion, class, geography, occupation etc. The goal of every campaign is to make voters identify with the candidate and believe that they are part of the same group.
All politics is identity politics (Whistling in the Wind)
Does anyone remember Sarah Palin and her “real Americans” who go hunting, attend church regularly, have kids and drive pickup trucks? Does anyone seriously think Palin was chosen because she was the most qualified candidate for vice president available to the McCain campaign? Or was it for reasons of “identity politics?” What about Mike Pence and his affiliation with Christian Evangelicals, a core part of the right-wing Republican coalition?
Peterson seems to believe that any sort of group affiliation is bad. But, without becoming a part of a larger group, how can one possibly effect change? We are a part of multiple, overlapping groups whether we like it or not: countries, families, workplaces, ethnicities, languages, occupations, etc., all tie us to other people and groups in various ways. It’s impossible for that not to be the case.
Now, I agree that neglecting people’s individualism is a bad thing. And certainly some groups aren’t allowed to speak for you just because they happen to be the same race, gender, and so forth. For example, if some white supremacist group claimed to speak for me because we’re the same ethnic “group” I would raise serious objections. This is not in dispute. People are more alike then they are different, as Peterson points out.
But dismissing the idea that there are no classes and that they are never in conflict is going a bit too far. The view that there are no classes, I would argue, is as against the grain of mainstream sociology as insisting that there are no genders.
Do Critics of Capitalism Hate Western Culture?
Peterson seems to imply that any criticism of capitalism is tantamount to Marxism. Again, maybe this isn’t accurate; it’s hard to tell. He also seems to imply that critics of capitalism (such as his alleged postmodernists) have a grudge against Western society and want to undermine it out of some notion of collective guilt.
Is Western society (whatever that is) entirely defined by capitalism? After all, it was around thousands of years before capitalism came along. In fact, many of the core institutions of the West are in opposition to capitalism! The Catholic Church, touted by many alt-Right types as the foundation of Western civilization, has been critical of capitalist materialism, it’s atomization of people, its lack of values and its callousness towards the poor and downtrodden. Many traditional social arrangements were destroyed, from the aristocracy to craft guilds to land tenure systems, in order to make way for capitalism and liberalized markets. The West existed under the Classical World, the Dark Ages, and Medieval feudalism.
Criticism of capitalism != Communism
Capitalism != Western civilization
There’s plenty to disagree with in Marxism if you’re so inclined, just as there is with any economic philosophy. But Peterson never engages with the actual philosophy itself. This is a good brief summary of what Marxism actually argues:
Marx started with the presumption that all markets operate much in the way the classical political economists then (and neoclassical economists today) presume. He then showed that even when all commodities exchange at their values and workers receive the value of their labor power (that is, no cheating), capitalists are able to appropriate a surplus-value (that is, there is exploitation). No special modifications of the presumption of perfect markets need to be made. As long as capitalists are able, after the exchange of money for the commodity labor power has taken place, to extract labor from labor power during the course of commodity production, there will be an extra value, a surplus-value, that capitalists are able to appropriate for doing nothing.
The point is, the Marxian theory of the distribution of income identifies an unequal distribution of income that is endemic to capitalism—and thus a fundamental violation of the idea of “just deserts”—even if all markets operate according to the unrealistic assumptions of mainstream economists. And that intrinsically unequal distribution of income within capitalism becomes even more unequal once we consider all the ways the mainstream assumptions about markets are violated on a daily basis within the kinds of capitalism we witness today.
Utopia and Inequality (Real World Economics Review)
Peterson frequently employs “snarl words” when discussing his opponents and critics (“Postmodernist,” “cultural (or Neo-) Marxist,” “feminist,” “social justice warrior”) or broad one-dimensional characterizations: (“PC culture,” the “radical Left,” and so on).
This is not what I would expect of a serious intellectual. His constant use of these phrases and terms should cause him to be a laughing stock, not taken seriously as a public intellectual. If he used such sloppy reasoning in his psychology career, he would not have gotten very far.
For example, Neo-marxism, to the extent that it exists, is a complex intellecual phenomenon. Conencting it to HR departments and blank slatism is intellectualy lazy.
What is Neo-Marxism?
Neo-Marxism is a huge area…both the Frankfurt School and Dependency Theory are important types of Neo-Marxism. Here are some others.
(1) The Hungarian Marxist, Georg Lukacs, and the “Budapest School” that came out of his work.
(2) The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, and the endless discourse on “hegemony” that has followed in his wake.
(3) Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, and the other structuralists.
(4) The analytical Marxist (or as they sometimes call themselves, the “no-bullshit Marxist) school: Jon Elster, John Roemer, Adam Przeworski, Erik Olin Wright, Robert Brenner, and others.
(5) Marxist feminism: Johanna Brenner, Nancy Hartsock, and others.
(6) Marxist state theory, most notably, of late, the French regulation school (see Bob Jessop’s work for a good summary of this work).
(7) Two schools of thought coming out of the U Mass – Amherst economics department: the social structures of accumulations school (Bowles and Gintis) and the “Rethinking Marxism” crowd (Resnick and Wolff).
(8) Marxist literary criticism – a huge enterprise, of which Terry Eagleton and Frederic Jameson are probably the leading lights.
(9) The “political Marxism” perspective growing out of Robert Brenner’s work, including Ellen Meiksins Wood, Benno Teschke, and others.
(10) Critical geography – the best-known thinker here would be David Harvey.
And on and on…
So, you see, Neo-Marxism isn’t just a compact school of thought. It’s an entire range of ways of seeing the humanities and the social sciences. If you really want an introduction to the whole range, I’d suggest that you check out the online version of Erik Olin Wright’s graduate class: Sociology 621: Class, State, and Ideology, found at https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/sociology621-2011.htm
Similar things could be said about feminist or postmodernist thought.
So which is Peterson talking about? That’s the problem–he never engages with any of these ideas, instead just associating them with everything he doesn’t like (e.g. gender quotas and speech policing).
This article does a good job of explaining what’s wrong with Peterson’s constant invoking of the phrase “cultural (or Neo-) marxism”:”
Scholars…do not…suggest that the Frankfurt School or other “cultural Marxists” ever had a plan to destroy the moral fibre of Western civilization, or to use their critique of culture as a springboard to a totalitarian regime. That would be difficult to argue in all seriousness because Western “cultural Marxists” going back to the 1920s have typically been hostile to state power, social oppression of the individual, and Soviet Marxism itself. Moreover, they have shown considerable variation among themselves in their attitudes to specific social, moral, and cultural issues. There is no cultural Marxist master plan.
More generally, serious intellectual history cannot ignore the complex cross-currents of thought within the Left in Western liberal democracies. The Left has always been riven with factionalism, not least in recent decades, and it now houses diverse attitudes to almost any imaginable aspect of culture (as well as to traditional economic issues). Many components of the Western cultural Left can only be understood when seen as (in part) reactions to other such components, while being deeply influenced by Western Marxism’s widespread criticism and rejection of Soviet communism.
In the upshot, all the talk of cultural Marxism from figures on the (far) Right of politics is of little aid to understanding our current cultural and political situation. At best, this conception of cultural Marxism is too blunt an intellectual instrument to be useful for analysing current trends. At its worst, it mixes wild conspiracy theorizing with self-righteous moralism.
None of this is to deny the moderate thesis that much contemporary cultural criticism has roots that trace back to the 1960s New Left, the Frankfurt and Birmingham Schools, and various Marxist theories of culture. In that sense, contemporary cultural criticism extends a cultural Marxist tradition, but this tradition largely defined itself against Soviet Marxism. Theoretically, at least, it displays an antipathy to authoritarianism, and it aspires to liberate the autonomy of individuals.
Furthermore, contemporary cultural criticism (and much left-wing political thought and activism) has morphed into a form of Western post-Marxism. It has not only turned away from Marxist-Leninism, but evolved to a point where it has lost much contact with Marxism itself.
Current left-wing activism can, indeed, display hyperbolic, philistine, and authoritarian tendencies, but these have little to do with any influence from Marx, Soviet totalitarianism, or the work of the Frankfurt School. They have more, I suspect, to do with tendencies toward moral and political purity in almost any movement that seeks social change…
Cultural Marxism and our Current Culture Wars, Part 2 (The Conversation)
Neither does Peterson ever seriously engage with the ideas of Postmodernism:
“Postmodernism” …is often used to imply some divorcing of a political debate from objective truth or reality and isn’t actually rooted in an understanding of postmodern philosophy. Instead, it’s used to downplay evidence someone doesn’t like as being subjective while upholding evidence someone does like as objective.
I’ve never seen him engage with any of these specific ideas, just pull them out of context to pillory them. This is not what I expect of someone who is held up as a serious scholar and an important public intellectual whose ideas are worth paying attention to. To claim that mantle, he must take others’ ideas seriously as well.
This video does a very good job of debunking Peterson’s (and the alt-right more generally), favorite pet theory:
The last time we mixed together the anger and economic pain of large numbers of white males, radical anticommunism and esoteric mysticism, we didn’t end up with a very good result, especially when the society was full of disillusioned military veterans.
This article by Pankaj Mishra seems to have hit a nerve: Jordan Peterson and Fascist Mysticism (New York Review of Books)
Mishra put his finger on something that bothered me a great deal but couldn’t quite articulate.
Now, I happen to know a bit about this stuff. Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite film, and I spent quite a long time coming up with my own “Americans versus Nazis and the Occult” idea for a novel (which I’ll keep to myself). But as part of that, I did extensive research into the role that occult ideas played in the rise of the Nazi Party, and the extent to which these societies played in the social organization of the radical extremist parties in Europe. See, for example, the Thule Society:
The Thule Society was a German occultist and völkisch group founded in Munich right after World War I, named after a mythical northern country in Greek legend. The society is notable chiefly as the organization that sponsored the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP; German Workers’ Party), which was later reorganized by Adolf Hitler into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party). According to Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw, the organization’s “membership list … reads like a Who’s Who of early Nazi sympathizers and leading figures in Munich”, including Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, Julius Lehmann, Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckart, and Karl Harrer.
See also The Myth of the Twentieth Century:
[Alfred] Rosenberg was inspired by the theories of Arthur de Gobineau, in his 1853–1855 book An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, and by Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century was conceived as a sequel to Chamberlain’s 1899 book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. Rosenberg believed that God created mankind as separate, differentiated races in a cascading hierarchy of nobility of virtue, not as separate individuals or as entities with “blank slate” natures. Rosenberg harshly rejected the idea of a “globular” mankind of homogeneity of nature as counter-factual, and asserted each biological race possesses a discrete, unique soul, claiming the Caucasoid Aryan race, with Germanic Nordics supposedly composing its vanguard elite, as qualitatively superior, in a vaguely “ontological” way, in comparison to all other ethnic and racial groupings: the Germanic Nordic Aryan as Platonic ideal of humankind. Other influences included the anti-modernist, “revolutionary” ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner’s Holy Grail romanticism inspired by the neo-Buddhist thesis of Arthur Schopenhauer, Haeckelian mystical vitalism, the medieval German philosopher Meister Eckhart and the heirs of his mysticism and Nordicist Aryanism in general.
Or a later example from after the War:
It isn’t hard these days to find discussions of Savitri Devi’s books on neo-Nazi web forums, especially The Lightning and the Sun, which expounds the theory that Hitler was an avatar – an incarnation – of the Hindu god Vishnu, and Gold in the Furnace, which urges true believers to trust that National Socialism will rise again. The American extreme-right website Counter-Currents hosts an extensive online archive of her life and work.
Her views are reaching a wider public, too, thanks to American alt-right leaders such as Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon, former Trump chief strategist and chair of Breitbart News, who have taken up the account of history as a cyclical battle between good and evil — a theory she shared with other 20th Century mystical fascists.
This isn’t the place to go into great detail about this. But I do know that similarly fruity and half-baked ideas were very popular with the small cabal of radicals who took over Germany’s government when Weimar fell. Ideas of an “Volkish” spirit outside of the real plane of existence were commonly held by many Nazis. So were “blood and soil” ideas and racist concepts that you see today in many “race realist” and HBD circles.
Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars.
Indeed, the modern fascination with myth has never been free from an illiberal and anti-democratic agenda. Richard Wagner, along with many German nationalists, became notorious for using myth to regenerate the volk and stoke hatred of the aliens—largely Jews—who he thought polluted the pure community rooted in blood and soil. By the early twentieth century, ethnic-racial chauvinists everywhere—Hindu supremacists in India as well as Catholic ultra-nationalists in France—were offering visions to uprooted peoples of a rooted organic society in which hierarchies and values had been stable. As Karla Poewe points out in New Religions and the Nazis (2005), political cultists would typically mix “pieces of Yogic and Abrahamic traditions” with “popular notions of science—or rather pseudo-science—such as concepts of ‘race,’ ‘eugenics,’ or ‘evolution.’” It was this opportunistic amalgam of ideas that helped nourish “new mythologies of would-be totalitarian regimes.”
Wither Blank Slatism?
Peterson often accuses his opponents of “blank slatism,” that is, believing differences in gender and abilities are simply “cultural constructs” and the product of an unjust social order. He has never, as far as I can tell, positively identified or referred to this in the actual writings of his opponents. He is fond of quoting Orwell’s jibe about socialists “not loving the poor but hating the rich.” He quotes that one endlessly. But he takes it out of context from a book where Orwell advocated FOR socialism, as this article points out:
Orwell flat-out says that anybody who evaluates the merits of socialist policies by the personal qualities of socialists themselves is an idiot. Peterson concludes that Orwell thought socialist policies was flawed because socialists themselves were bad people. I don’t think there is a way of reading Peterson other than as extremely stupid or extremely dishonest, but one can be charitable and assume he simply didn’t read the book that supposedly gave him his grand revelation about socialism.
The Intellectual We Deserve (Current Affairs)
For example, I’ve never heard Peterson utter even one actual quote from Marx! I mean, it’s not like the man never wrote anything. If his ideas inevitably lead to mass murder and the gulag, then why not provide direct quotes which back that up? Even Postmodernists are never cited directly, only books about them, such as Explaining Postmodernism.
Neither Derrida nor Foucault is cited in 12 Rules for Life. Apparently, not only has Peterson never bothered to actually read them, he seems not to have even read their Wikipedia entries. The only relevant citation is of a book called Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, which he customarily recommends at speaking engagements. The author, Stephen Hicks, is Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship at Rockford University, and an acolyte of Ayn Rand. Armed with this dubious secondary source, Peterson is left making statements that are not only mired in factual error, but espouse a comically reductive conception of how social life and history work. He takes a common misunderstanding at face value, proceeding to build a whole outlook on it.
Postmodernism Did Not Take Place: On Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (Viewpoint Magazine)
Thus he can continue to misrepresent some shadowy “other” without naming names. This means no one individual can stand up and say, as Peterson so often does, that he’s “misrepresenting my ideas.” Instead, Peterson claims to be in opposition to a broad, undifferentiated “radical Left”–a shadowy group with no real face and ideas defined primarily by him. He can then beat the stuffing out of this straw man endlessly.
Is his characterization of his enemies’ ideas accurate? Well, to take just one example, I decided to listen to the BBC’s In Our Time episode on Feminism. I liked their episode on the Frankfurt School, and I thought it might give me some historical perspective on feminism. Instead, it was more of a dialogue/conversation between the host and two scholars of feminism and authors of several books. Here is how the host begins the program:
Melvin Bragg (host): Helena Cronin, you have written that men are by nature more ambitious, status-conscious, dedicated, single-minded, and perservering than women. You say that this a two-million year old fact, and we should accept it. Can you develop that, please?
Helena Cronin: Yes, of course they are. There’s quite a large psychological difference between men and women. Natural selection didn’t just shape our bodies differently but it shaped our minds differently as well. Think of it this way: give a man 50 wives and he can have children galore. Give a woman 50 husbands, no use whatsoever. Over evolutionary time, natural section has favored those men who have competed like mad to get mates. Over evolutionary time, natural selection has favored the women who have been judicious about which men they’ve taken. we are all descendants of the competitive men and of the judicious women.
MB: If you take those adjectives one by one, though, you could say that…take competitive. Well, Very few men have been as competitive as Margaret Thatcher; single minded, hundreds of women I could think of, tens of women I could think of even personally are very single minded; persevering, think of doctors and teachers and so on. Do these things apply now in the way that you think they have applied for two million years?
HC: They certainly apply now in exactly the way they did in that genes are still building our minds and bodies in the way they have for two million years. And the difference in psychology between men and women. Whats changed now, of course, is that women have fought and struggled for more opportunities. And those women who, on average, would have performed more like men are now able to. But that’s a statistical difference. One can say statistically that men are taller than women. And it’s certainly true that there are some tall women around, but all the tallest people are men.
Similarly, although women are now being given opportunities, and we can find the Margaret Thatchers and so on that couldn’t have existed years ago, statistically, nevertheless, women are on average far less competitive than men.
The other guest, feminist author Germaine Greer, responds:
I actually think I probably agree that masculinity is very different from femininity. I certainly believe that. But I also believe that men work very hard at creating masculinism and they put themselves through extraordinary disciplines. There’s a lot of aspects to the way they behave which are highly cultural and extremely protean: could change pretty quickly…the point is, culture does different things with biology…
In Our Time – Feminism (BBC)
Feminists and the “radical Left” refuse to acknowledge gender differences? Really? That’s not what it sounds like to me. They don’t really disagree on the basics, just on the emphasis. If you go on listening, you find that they do have their disagreements, but it’s much more complex than Peterosn’s cardboard caricatures of feminists. Later on, there is this exchange:
Helena Cronin: “Men and women are different. you’re assuming that this is in some way inimical to feminism.”
Melvin Bragg: “To a certain extent it is.”
Helena Cronin: “No, that’s where I strongly disagree with you…”
Of course, I can always find some fringe scholar who believes anything if I look hard enough. Ironically, Peterson’s own Reddit site recommends “steel manning,” or arguing against the strongest version of your opponents case. But I think the above proves that Peterson’ popularity (and Patreon donations) are predicated on him doing the exact opposite.
Alternatives to the 12 Rules
One of Peterson’s basic points I read as this: Any political system which goes against basic human nature is doomed to fail. On this point, we agree. We just have different views on what is compatible with human nature.
He also argues that when we see differential outcomes, such as more men graduating with engineering degrees, or more male CEO’s, we shouldn’t automatically assume some sort of bias or discrimination is present. This is an important point, and I agree with it. There are other factors we should consider.
He also argues that we shouldn’t subsume our individuality in the service of a group identity, and opposes notions of “collective guilt.” These are also well-founded. However, his dismissal of any and all forms of oppression throughout history strikes me as an extreme position.
This post makes a connection between Peterson’s philosophy and Christian existentialism: Jordan Peterson is a Garden Variety Christian Existentialist (Benjamin Studebaker)
If you like Peterson’s political philosophies, then you may be less an anti-Marxist than a Burkean Conservative. This column from John Michael Greer is still the best articulation of Edmund Burke’s philosophy that I’ve read anywhere:
The foundation of Burkean conservatism is the recognition that human beings aren’t half as smart as they like to think they are. One implication of this recognition is that when human beings insist that the tangled realities of politics and history can be reduced to some set of abstract principles simple enough for the human mind to understand, they’re wrong. Another is that when human beings try to set up a system of government based on abstract principles, rather than allowing it to take shape organically out of historical experience, the results will pretty reliably be disastrous.
What these imply, in turn, is that social change is not necessarily a good thing. It’s always possible that a given change, however well-intentioned, will result in consequences that are worse than the problems that the change is supposed to fix. In fact, if social change is pursued in a sufficiently clueless fashion, the consequences can cascade out of control, plunging a nation into failed-state conditions, handing it over to a tyrant, or having some other equally unwanted result. What’s more, the more firmly the eyes of would-be reformers are fixed on appealing abstractions, and the less attention they pay to the lessons of history, the more catastrophic the outcome will generally be.
That, in Burke’s view, was what went wrong in the French Revolution. His thinking differed sharply from continental European conservatives, in that he saw no reason to object to the right of the French people to change a system of government that was as incompetent as it was despotic. It was, the way they went about it — tearing down the existing system of government root and branch, and replacing it with a shiny new system based on fashionable abstractions — that was problematic. What made that problematic, in turn, was that it simply didn’t work. Instead of establishing an ideal republic of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the wholesale reforms pushed through by the National Assembly plunged France into chaos, handed the nation over to a pack of homicidal fanatics, and then dropped it into the waiting hands of an egomaniacal warlord named Napoleon Bonaparte.
Two specific bad ideas founded in abstractions helped feed the collapse of revolutionary France into chaos, massacre, tyranny, and pan-European war. The first was the conviction, all but universal among the philosophes whose ideas guided the revolution, that human nature is entirely a product of the social order. According to this belief, the only reason people don’t act like angels is that they live in an unjust society, and once that is replaced by a just society, why, everybody would behave the way the moral notions of the philosophes insisted they should. Because they held this belief, in turn, the National Assembly did nothing to protect their shiny up-to-date system against such old-fashioned vices as lust for power and partisan hatred, with results that made the streets of Paris run with blood.
The second bad idea had the same effect as the first. This was the conviction, also all but universal among the philosophes, that history moved inevitably in the direction they wanted: from superstition to reason, from tyranny to liberty, from privilege to equality, and so on. According to this belief, all the revolution had to do to bring liberty, equality, and fraternity was to get rid of the old order, and voila — liberty, equality, and fraternity would pop up on cue. Once again, things didn’t work that way. Where the philosophes insisted that history moves ever upward toward a golden age in the future, and the European conservatives who opposed them argued that history slides ever downward from a golden age in the past, Burke’s thesis — and the evidence of history — implies that history has no direction at all.
The existing laws and institutions of a society, Burke proposed, grow organically out of that society’s history and experience, and embody a great deal of practical wisdom. They also have one feature that the abstraction-laden fantasies of world-reformers don’t have, which is that they have been proven to work. Any proposed change in laws and institutions thus needs to start by showing, first, that there’s a need for change; second, that the proposed change will solve the problem it claims to solve; and third, that the benefits of the change will outweigh its costs. Far more often than not, when these questions are asked, the best way to redress any problem with the existing order of things turns out to be the option that causes as little disruption as possible, so that what works can keep on working.
That is to say, Burkean conservatism can be summed up simply as the application of the precautionary principle to the political sphere.
A Few Notes on Burkean Conservatism (World News Trust)
I would assume that Peterson would agree with the obvious falseness of this sentiment: “…the only reason people don’t act like angels is that they live in an unjust society, and once that is replaced by a just society, why, everybody would behave the way the moral notions of the philosophes insisted they should.” This is what he claims “social justice warriors” believe. And if that’s true, then I agree with Peterson. It’s true that certain Utopian factions of the Left have made this mistake and gone too far down this road. to that extent, those ideas deserve criticism.
For what it’s worth, Peterson doesn’t see himself as a conservative, so much as a “terrified traditionalist” who generally believes in exercising caution over endorsing sweeping or radical cultural changes.
Yes, Jordan Peterson Really Is That Smart (Daily Beast)
But it’s worth noting that Burke wasn’t criticizing Marxism, he was criticizing the French Revolution, a revolution which took place before Marx was even born! One wonders how exactly Marxism was responsible for this spasm of bloodshed over extreme inequality? Or perhaps it’s just that revolutions are inherently bloody business, regardless of what philosophy the revolutionaries ostensibly use to justify them. It just so happens most of the big ones in the twentieth century claimed to be channeling the spirit of Marx. In fact, Marx specifically warned against the tendency toward authoritarianism:
Neither of us cares a straw for popularity. A proof of this is for example, that, because of aversion to any personality cult, I have never permitted the numerous expressions of appreciation from various countries with which I was pestered during the existence of the International to reach the realm of publicity, and have never answered them, except occasionally by a rebuke. When Engels and I first joined the secret Communist Society we made it a condition that everything tending to encourage superstitious belief in authority was to be removed from the statutes.
Indeed, the idea that an unjust social order is responsible for society’s ills is an Enlightenment one, and not one specific to Marxism per se, as Peterson insists. For example, it was the “classical liberal” the Marquis de Condorcet, not Karl Marx, who penned the following:
The real advantages that should result from this progress, of which we can entertain a hope that is almost a certainty, can have no other term than that of the absolute perfection of the human race; since, as the various kinds of equality come to work in its favor by producing ampler sources of supply, more extensive education, more complete liberty, so equality will be more real and will embrace everything which is really of importance for the happiness of human beings …
John Gray has also pointed this out:
The repression of liberty that took place in the countries in which Communist regimes were established cannot be adequately explained as a product of backwardness, or of errors in the application of Marxian theory. It was the result of a resolute attempt to realize an Enlightenment utopia – a condition of society in which no serious form of conflict any longer exists.
The idea of evil as it appears in modern secular thought is an inheritance from Christianity. To be sure, rationalists have repudiated the idea; but it is not long before they find they cannot do without it. What has been understood as evil in the past, they insist, is error – a product of ignorance that human beings can overcome. Here they are repeating a Zoroastrian theme, which was absorbed into later versions of monotheism: the belief that ‘as the “lord of creation” man is at the forefront of the contest between the powers of Truth and Untruth.’ But how to account for the fact that humankind is deaf to the voice of reason? At this point rationalists invoke sinister interests – wicked priests, profiteers from superstition, malignant enemies of enlightenment, secular incarnations of the forces of evil. As so often is the case, secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. Modern rationalists reject the idea of evil while being obsessed by it. Seeing themselves as embattled warriors in a struggle against darkness, it has not occurred to them to ask why humankind is so fond of the dark. They are left with the same problem of evil that faces religion. The difference is that religious believers know they face an insoluble difficulty, while secular believers do not. Aware of the evil in themselves, traditional believers know it cannot be expelled from the world by human action. Lacking this saving insight, secular believers dream of creating a higher species. They have not noticed the fatal flaw in their schemes: any such species will be created by actually existing human beings.
Peterson’s views, by contrast, are more in line with Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinsim as explained by Marx’s son in law Paul Lafarge:
“No political alchemy will get golden conduct out of leaden instincts; … no well-working institution will be framed by an ill-working humanity — hence mankind must abandon all hope of bettering our present system of society and of doing away with the wrongs and miseries of it.”
Another strain of thought similar to Peterson’s is Stoicism.
Like Peterson, Stoicism is interested in suffering and how to overcome it. It does not deny the harsh nature of existence. Like Peterson, stoicism differentiates between the things that are under our control and the things that aren’t. And it advocates mastering those aspects of your life you can control, while accepting those you cannot. Indeed, the very word stoic in English has come to mean “accepting one’s burdens without complaint.”
Stoicism has undergone something of a revival in these tumultuous times. There are many resources out there. I would recommend reading them.
As for the rest of Peterson’s rhetoric, you can get it from other wisdom sources who wrote long before Peterson without all the political baggage. For example, I ran across these quotes from the French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry:
Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something discovered: it is something molded. These prison walls that this age of trade has built up round us, we can break down. We can still run free, call to our comrades, and marvel to hear once more, in response to our call, the impassioned chant of the human voice.
To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems to be unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one’s comrades. It is to feel, when setting one’s stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world.
If it is true that wars are won by believers, it is also true that peace treaties are sometimes signed by businessmen.
Or Victor Frankl:
If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.
There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.
Or Joseph Campbell:
If we could dredge up something forgotten not only by ourselves but by our whole generation or our entire civilization, we should become indeed the boonbringer, the culture hero of the day—a personage of not only local but world historical moment. In a word: the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C. G. Jung called “the archetypal images.” This is the process known to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy as viveka, “discrimination.”
Or Marcus Aurelius:
Never esteem anything as of advantage to you that will make you break your word or lose your self-respect.
Remember this— that there is a proper dignity and proportion to be observed in the performance of every act of life.
Finally, I would agree with the sentiment expressed by one of the above articles, “This much should be obvious from even a cursory reading of him: If Jordan Peterson is the most influential intellectual in the Western world, the Western world has lost its damn mind.”