Thoughts on the Peterson/Zizek Debate

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I thought I’d proffer a few observations on the Zizek/Peterson debate, which I’ve finally had an opportunity to watch.

My first thought was the sheer bizzareness of the basic premise for the debate: Capitalism versus Marxism, which is better for happiness? Er, how about none of the above? As Peter Joseph opined:

“The title of this debate is ‘Happiness: Capitalism versus Marxism.’ An unfortunate decision because it sets up a binary position between assumed ideologies, while throwing in the world “happiness,” which muddies the issue even more, since what defines happiness is sociologically vague when it comes to causality…and yet, people are going to watch this, especially young people, and this is going to be their limit of debate. This is going to be how they’re going to frame their sense of possibility in terms of future social organization…”

I think a better topic might be, rather, what kind of capitalism do we want to have? Indeed, I think that’s the conversation we should be having. After all, most everywhere is basically now capitalist to one degree or another (with the exception of maybe, oddballs like North Korea).

And that would be a far easier question to answer. If I a participant in that debate, I would make the following points:

The first is that every indicator of overall happiness, well-being and life satisfaction that we know of for as long as I can remember puts the Nordic countries—especially Scandinavia—on top. Finland, Norway and Denmark are the perennial leaders in happiness rankings every single time, closely followed by other Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Iceland, and then followed closely by other Nordic countries like Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands. Occasionally a few Asian and Anglo-Saxon countries with good showings in the ratings, countries like Japan, Australia, and Peterson’s own native Canada. The United States is almost always lower than these democratic socialist countries, but higher than desperately poor failed states found in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, which is a rather sad point of comparison. For example:

Happiness report: Finland is world’s ‘happiest country’ – UN (BBC)

Finland is offering free trips to people in need of happiness lessons (Treehugger)

So the empirical evidence here is pretty overwhelming and unequivocal. If happiness is your goal—which was one of the core premise of the debate—then the Nordic countries can’t be beat. And in my view, much of what constitutes the so-called “radical Left” in America today is merely advocating a move in that direction, and not for any kind of revolutionary socialism or Communism. This is evident from the policy proposals of the most notable Left-wing politicians in America today: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, AOC, and their ideological allies.

The second point is a quibble with Peterson’s assertion (paraphrasing Churchill) that capitalism is the worst economic system except for all the others that have ever been tried. Here’s Peterson:

“I heard a criticism of capitalism, but no real support of Marxism, and that’s an interesting thing…Zizek points out that there are problems with capitalism. I would like to say that I am perfectly aware that there are problems with capitalism. I wasn’t defending capitalism actually…I was defending it in comparison to Communism, which is not the same thing. Because, as Winston Churchill said about democracy, it’s the worst form of government there is, except for all the other forms.”

“And so you might say the same thing about capitalism–that its the worst form of economic arrangement you could possibly manage except for every other one that we’ve ever tried. And I’m dead serious about that; I’m not trying to be flippant…”

Except he’s wrong about that. We *have* tried another form of capitalism. It goes under a variety of names, but it was, in essence, the type of managed capitalism we had from the end of the Second World War up until the mid-1970s or so.

After 1980, we embraced a new “software” running on the “hardware” of Capitalism—Neoliberalism, initially put in place by Thatcher and Reagan in the Anglo-Saxon countries, and then spreading to the rest of the industrialized world to one degree or another. Under the “Washington Consensus,” it became the dominant model for the developing world as well after 1980. It continues to try and usurp all other competing forms of capitalism, including that of Northern Europe, often under the guise of “disaster capitalism” caused by fiscal crisis, political crisis, or deliberately imposed austerity policies (c.f. Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”).

The tenets of this new philosophy of capitalism can be summarized as follows:

  • Globalization. That is, unrestricted capital flows between nations. Western workers would now be in direct head-to-head competition with the billions of increasingly-educated workers all over the globe. Often referred to as a “race to the bottom.” Corporations and businesses are unmoored from any particular state, as if floating on a barge, free to go anywhere to seek the highest returns anywhere on earth.
  • Deregulation (really re-regulation) of corporations and financial institutions, trusting that markets will be “self-regulating.” and that somehow self-interested parties left to their own devices will keep the system stable.
  • Financialization, or the leveraging of money and debt, along with gambling, to increase wealth as opposed to investing in productive enterprise. This has led to things like leveraged buyouts and asset-stripping on a massive scale. Sometimes referred to as “casino capitalism.” Much wealth has been reallocated rather than created due to this process. It’s also led to repeated bailouts of the financial system, often referred to as “privatized profits and socialized losses.”
  • Putting the notion of “shareholder value” front-and-center, ahead of all other business concerns—such as those toward employees, contractors, suppliers, the environment, and the wider society in general—per Milton Friedman’s doctrine. Focusing on immediate, short-term returns instead of long-term stability, sometimes called “quarterly capitalism.” This is exacerbated by compensating CEO’s with stock options instead of salaries, which has also dramatically increased inequality.
  • Austerity—the idea that the government must always run balanced budgets and pay down excess “debt” even in times of financial crisis and instability. This has led to deep, recurring cutbacks in government-provided social services all across the developed world, especially in the Eurozone with its common currency system. More generally, it promotes the idea that governments are perennially “broke” and cannot–and should not–provide for basic social welfare provisioning.
  • Drastically reduced taxes on wealth, with correspondingly high government budget deficits. Passive investment income like capital gains and dividends are taxed at a much lower rate than salary and wage income. Government relies more and more on regressive taxation like FICA and VAT rather than steeply progressive taxes, as it once did.
  • Privatization of government services and a drastically reduced role for government as opposed to the private sector. The idea is that citizens are best served by becoming “consumers” shopping around in “free” markets using their own resources, rather than relying on collectively-provisioned government services, which are derided as “inefficient” and “wasteful” despite all the evidence to the contrary.
  • A much more “flexible” labor market, and a concomitant hostility to labor unions. A general reduction in employer obligations to workers (but not the reverse), and the rise of abusive labor arrangements such as the “gig economy” and “zero-hours contracts.”
  • A commodification of all aspects of life. Things that used to be provided for free are turned into commodities to be bought and sold (“Markets in Everything”)–even things like childcare, food preparation, advice, and companionship.
  • Massive consolidation of entire sectors of the economy in the hands of just a few participants, often referred to as “monopoly capitalism.” More precisely, many market sectors have become oligopolies, with only a handful of big companies exerting titanic influence over entire sectors, such as wholesale agriculture and Internet provision (Comcast, Time-Warner, etc.) In the online world, companies like Google, Facebook, eBay, Amazon and Instagram dominate with no real competition. Mergers also serve to concentrate wealth and eliminate competition, and they are completely legal. While not a part of Neoliberal economic doctrine pe se, it has been the effective end result, especially in the United States where monopoly regulations are no longer enforced, even those that are already on the books. Much competition in the business world is more imagined than real.
  • Mass surveillance of the citizenry. While also not a doctrinaire aspect of Neoliberalism, it has been the result all over the world, most disturbingly in the world’s largest and fastest-growing economy, China. I would argue that the need to aggressively police markets (such as IP protection), and dealing with (i.e. jailing) the inevitable portion of the populace that cannot meet their needs through market forces alone, requires such authoritarian surveillance and draconian legal structures.

The list goes on and on, but I think you get the idea.

In the late 1930s a group of intellectuals, including Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and others adopted the term “neoliberalism” to describe their agenda based on the conviction that laissez faire was not enough. The Great Depression paired with the rise of mass democracy meant that the market would not take care of itself. Wielding their ballots, electorates would always vote for more favors for themselves — and, thus, more state intervention into the economy — crippling the combination of market prices and private property upon which capitalism depended. From this time onward, as I describe in my recent book, one of the primary dreams of neoliberals was for institutions that would constrain democratic demands and protect the free movement of capital, goods, and (sometimes, but not always) people across borders.

Neoliberalism’s Populist Bastards (Public Seminar)

Even economic growth and GDP—supposedly the end-all and be-all of capitalism—was actually higher for much of that earlier period compared to the subsequent Neoliberal period, especially after the year 2000. Of course, much of that growth came from rebuilding after the Second World War, but that just shows that rapid economic growth is often more dependent on external forces than the vicissitudes of economic regulation (such as tax rates or trade). After the global financial crisis in 2008, growth outside of developing countries has almost completely stalled, causing problems all over the world, including the rise of reactionary populism.

The neoliberal assumption is that no one deserves anything, and everyone should have to do mortal combat for everything. That is, no one deserves healthcare, an education, an income, retirement?—?these things only belong to the “winners” of a never-ending social contest, in which the stakes are life or death. So it’s not exactly a surprise that neoliberalism set fire to the world. That the Champs Elysees is in flames, that Britain melted down, that American life simply fell apart. The fundamental idea was always going to fail: to make everyone fight everyone else for everything all the time?

What a 21st Century Politics Looks Like (Medium)

So, once again getting back to the original premise of the debate, which type of capitalism leads to greater happiness? If I were setting the terms of the debate,I would personally want to argue not so much for Marxism (whatever that means) as against Neoliberalism. After all, let’s face it, Marxism is still underground and marginalized, while Neoliberalism is, by far, the most forceful and dominant economic orthodoxy in the world today. There’s just no comparison.

Had I been a participant in the debate, I would have waved around copies of the Case/Deaton report, which extensively documented a dramatic increase in “deaths of despair” after the 2008 financial meltdown. Can there be any more damning an indictment of Neoliberalism’s effect on happiness, especially in the contemporary United States? Here’s an interview with Deaton from 2017:

“[I]f you look at white, non-Hispanics in midlife, in their early 50s for example, their mortality rate after 100 years of declining had turned the wrong way or at least flattened out. This is not happening to other groups in the U.S. It’s not happening to Hispanics. It’s not happening to African-Americans. And it’s not happening in any other rich country in the world. This is happening to both men and women. Perhaps the most shocking thing is that a lot of the deaths come from what you might think of as behavioral factors, which are alcohol – alcoholic beverages – from suicides and from drug overdoses. Many of those drug overdoses are accidental overdoses from prescription drugs. People often think the health system is responsible for our health. In this case, the health system is responsible for killing people, not actually helping them. … It’s like there are two Americas out there: the people with a B.A., and people without a B.A. The mortality rates of white non-Hispanics without a B.A. are going up faster than the average. They’re much more subject to opioid abuse, suicides, alcohol-related liver disease and heart disease, which has been a major cause in mortality decline. Mortality from heart diseases stopped declining and started rising. There’s a lot of really bad stuff going on, especially for this group without a B.A.”

Interview with Angus Deaton on Death Rates, Inequality, and More (The Conversable Economist)

Or, take the report by Phillip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights who visited the United States a couple of years back:

My visit coincides with a dramatic change of direction in US policies relating to inequality and extreme poverty. The proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans. The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by the President and Speaker Ryan, and already beginning to be implemented by the administration, will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes. It is against this background that my report is presented.

The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty…

American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations. But instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights. As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.

Statement on Visit to the USA, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (UN)

Which is immediately followed by a long list of damning statistics indicating a dramatic social breakdown inside the United States over the past few decades, unique among the world’s rich, industrialized nations, especially after 2008 (over ten years ago). I would have waved those statistics all over the place as well.

In 1918, a pandemic of Spanish flu infected approximately one third of the global population, killing between 20 and 50 million people. In the United States alone, more than 650,000 people died, enough to contribute to a decline in the country’s life expectancy. For a century, this was the worst decline in American health. Until this year. The National Center for Health Statistics reported that, between 2016 and 2017, US life expectancy dropped from 78.7 to 78.6 years. This marks the third consecutive year that life expectancy in the US has decreased.

We have not had a drop like this since the 1918 flu pandemic. What does our lack of attention tell us about how we think about health in this country?

…perhaps we have come to accept the longer-term trend in which US life expectancy has lagged relative to other economically comparable countries. Perhaps knowing that our health is not terrific is simply the American condition. But, of course, it is not and our health was not always worse than our peer countries. As recently as thirty years ago we were in the top half of the pack…Shouldn’t we then start paying attention to the worst American health deterioration in a 100 years?

The Story We Are Not Talking About Enough (Public Health Post)

What makes people unhappy? Stress about money. Precariousness. Poor physical health. A bad diet. Homelessness. Unemployment. “Social distance.” Random violence. Abuse. Johann Hari recently wrote about these factors in his book about the causes of depression, and depression is the biggest drain on happiness that there is. Yet these are the inevitable fruits of Neoliberalism. Yet there are alternatives, and yes, alternatives that have been tried, do exist right now, and do not require us to abandon markets or capitalism, and certainly do not require us to all become politically-correct Marxists. So I wish we had less of a binary debate about “Capitalism versus Marxism” and more about the type of capitalism we want to have, because there are versions that have been proven to work well and versions that don’t.

What I think were Peterson’s best comments came in his first 10-minute response. It’s also a good summary of his philosophy. He made some good points here, but also a few things to quibble with:

“He [Zizek] said, well, what [are] the problems with capitalism? Well, the commodification of cultural life–all life–fair enough. There’s something that isn’t exactly right about reducing everything to economic competition. Capitalism certainly pushes in that direction; advertising culture pushes in that direction; sales and marketing culture pushes in that direction. And there’s reasons for that. I have a certain amount of admiration for the necessity of advertisers and salesmen and marketers. But that doesn’t mean that the transformation of all elements of life into commodities in a capitalist sense is the best way forward. I don’t think it is the best way forward…”

Good! It seems Peterson might be receptive to the ides of Karl Polanyi. In fact, Polanyi, too, rejected Marx’s ideas of class conflict and the arbitrary division into capitalists and proletariat as needlessly simplistic. So there’s some agreement there. That brings to mind another very important point that Peterson himself brought up, and I think is one of the most important things he said all evening:

“There is, by the way, a relationship between wealth and happiness. It’s quite well defined in the psychological literature. Now it’s not exactly obvious whether the happiness measures are measures of happiness, or whether they’re measures of the absence of misery. And my sense is, as a psychometrician who’s looked at these scales, that people are more concerned with not being miserable than they are with being happy. Those are actually seperate emotional states mediated by different psychobiological systems. It’s a technical point, but its an important one.”

Yep, I agree with that, and I think it’s important.

“There is a relation between absolute level of income and self reported lack of misery or happiness. And its pretty linear until you hit, I would say, something approximating decent working class income. So what seems to happen is that wealth makes you happy as long as it keeps the bill collectors at bay. One you’ve got to the point where the misery is staved off as much as it can be by the fact that you’re not in absolutely economically dire straights, than adding more money to your life has no relationship whatsoever to your well being.

“And so, its clear that past a certain minimal point, additional material provision is not sufficient to, let’s say, redeem us individually or socially. And it’s certainly the case that the radical wealth production that characterizes capitalism might produce a fatal threat to the structure of our social systems and our broader ecosystems. Who knows?…”

What makes these comments so extraordinary is that, to me, they are excellent arguments not for libertarian winner-take-all capitalism but rather for democratic socialism! Let the capitalists make their fortunes, sure. But tax away the highest fortunes, and the happiness of the rich will not be negatively effected at all, since what we really want is not wealth but status, and status is inherently relative. Then use that wealth created by the capitalists to subsequently provide a basic social provisioning to all of your citizens, including those excluded from market participation for one reason or another. Provide the basics of survival (food, housing, education) so that people have a basic sense of security. After that, it’s up to them. That’s a recipe for societal happiness.

Is that Marxism? I don’t know, but it seems like a fair compromise to me. Good on Peterson for making these points. His next points are a bit more problematic, however:

“I didn’t hear an alternative, really, from Dr. Zizek. Now, he admitted that the rise to success of the Chinese was in part a consequence of the allowance of market forces and decried the authoritarian tendencies. And fair enough, that’s exactly it. And it also seemed to me that the social justice group identity processes that Dr. Zizek was decrying are to me a logical derivation from the oppression narrative that’s a fundamental presupposition of Marxism. I never heard a defense of Marxism in that part of his argument as well. And so, for me again, it’s to ask what is the alternative?”

“I also heard an argument for egalitarianism, but I heard it defined as equality of opportunity, not as equality of outcome, which I see as a clearly defined Marxist aim. I heard an argument for a modified social distribution of wealth, but that’s already part and parcel of most free market economic states with a wide variation, and an appropriate variation of government intervention, all of which constitute their own experiment. We don’t know how much social intervention is necessary to flatten the tendency of hierarchies to tilt it so terribly that all of the people at the top have everything and all the people at the bottom have nothing. It’s a very difficult battle to fight against that profound tendency. It’s much deeper than capitalism itself, and we don’t know what to do about it, so we run experiments. And that seems to be working reasonably as far as I can tell…”

Here, the thing is, Peterson is debating his own imaginary form of Marxism which has no relation to the real thing! In fact, at the very start of the debate, he admits to reading the Communist Manifesto (and only the Communist Manifesto) for the first time in something like forty years. And yet, all this time he has been going all around the world denouncing Marxism!

I don’t think Marx and Engels ever advocated for absolute equality of outcome or total leveling. So why, then, does Peterson constantly—and I mean constantly—argue that it does? If you claim that Marxists must believe X, and then you have a dialogue with a Marxist who doesn’t advocate for X, and doesn’t know anyone else similar to him who believes X, then there are only two options. One is to argue that your opponent is, in fact, not a Marxist, which is what Peterson does (the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. Or, you could admit that you were wrong the whole time about what you assumed that your opponents believed, which I think is the right response.

Zizek himself points this out at one point:

“Where did you find this [idea of] egalitarianism? There is one passage in his late ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme‘ where Marx assesses the problem of equality. And he dismisses it as a strict bourgeois category–explicitly, explicitly. For him, Communism is not egalitarianism…”

So the idea that Marxism calls for an absolute equality of outcome is a just figment of Peterson’s imagination (i.e. a Straw Man fallacy). I was curious to learn more about this, so I did a quick Google search, and here’s what I found:

…Marx makes two main points about equality in his 1875 ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. Firstly, Marx claims that it makes no sense to speak of equality in the abstract. This is because we can only understand what it means for x to be equal or unequal with y if we first specify the dimensions along which they are being compared. For x to be equal to y is for them to be equal in a particular concrete respect. For example, if x and y are people then they can only be judged equal relative to particular criteria such as their height, how many shoes they own, or how much cake they have eaten. Therefore, one can only be in favour of equality along specific dimensions, such as equality of cake consumption, and never equality as an abstract ideal.

Secondly, Marx claims that advocating equality along one dimension, such as everyone in a society earning the same amount of money per hour worked, will lead to inequality along other dimensions. Everyone earning an equal amount per hour of work would, for example, lead to those who work more having more money than those who work less. As a result, those unable to work a large amount (if at all) such as disabled people, old people, or women who are expected to do the majority of housework, will be unequal with those who can work more, such as the able-bodied, young people, or men. Or those doing manual labour, and so unable to work long hours due to fatigue, will be unequal to those who engage in non-manual labour and so can work more hours. If a society decides to instead ensure equality of income by paying all workers the same daily wage then there would still be inequality along other dimensions. For example, workers who don’t have to provide for a family with their wage will have more disposable income than workers with families. Therefore we can never reach full equality but merely move equality and inequality around along different dimensions.

If Marx was not an egalitarian in the strict sense of the term then what was he? The answer in short is a believer in human freedom and human development. For Marx, the “true realm of freedom” consists in the “development of human powers as an end in itself”. As a result, he conceives of a communist society as one in which “the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle”. In such a society there are “[u]niversally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal . . . relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control”. This “communal control” includes “their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth”. Marx therefore justified the forms of equality he did advocate, such as the communal ownership and control of the economy, on the grounds that they led to human freedom and human development, rather than simply because they were egalitarian.

Marx and Engels Were Not Egalitarians (anarchopac). Seems like a good recipe for happiness to me. In fact, Marx’s theory of alienation appears to be the first serious attempt to actually think about the economy’s effects on life satisfaction by any economic thinker, which stands in stark contrast to many of the Classical Liberals, who seemed to think of people as simply work machines without their own goals or aspirations.

So, a simple Google search, not to mention a five-minute conversation with someone who, you know, has actually read Marx’s work beyond the Manifesto, would have invalidated this specious argument. The reason Dr. Zizek wasn’t advocating for equality of outcome is simple—it has nothing whatsoever to do with Marxism! Neither does political correctness or identity politics.

The second point I highlighted above is Peterson’ claim that we don’t know how to do anything to fight inequality. This is a major objection that I’ve had with his views for a longtime. He’s repeated this  statement quite often in his interviews and speeches, such as in his interview with Russell Brand.

Now, he is somewhat correct in the sense that we don’t know how to create a system that eliminates all inequality, or that can operate a complex, technological society without any sort of hierarchy. But as I said, many of the ideas which have been systematically dismantled by Neoliberalism did do a reasonably good job in containing inequality, and helped assure that the wealth generated by capitalism was more broadly shared. And I think the denial of this fact, intentionally or not, is intellectually dishonest. In the previous style of capitalism that existed before Neoliberalism, there was a much more equitable distribution of resources sometimes called “the Great Compression.” Wikipedia talks about this, and gives some reason why it happened:

Economist Paul Krugman gives credit for the compression not only to progressive income taxation but to other New Deal and World War II policies of President Franklin Roosevelt. From about 1937 to 1947 highly progressive taxation, the strengthening of unions of the New Deal, and the wage and price controls of the National War Labor Board during World War II, raised the income of the poor and working class and lowered that of top earners. Krugman argues these explanation are more convincing than the conventional Kuznets curve cycle of inequality driven by market forces because a natural change would have been gradual and not sudden as the compression was.

Explanation for the length of the compression’s lasting have attributed to the lack of immigrant labor in the US during that time (immigrants often not being able to vote and so support their political interests) and the strength of unions, exemplified by Reuther’s Treaty of Detroit—a landmark 1949 business-labor bargain struck between the United Auto Workers union and General Motors. Under that agreement, UAW members were guaranteed wages that rose with productivity, as well as health and retirement benefits. In return GM had relatively few strikes, slowdowns, etc. Unions helped limit increases in executive pay. Further, members of Congress in both political parties significantly overlapped in their voting records and relatively more politicians advocated centrist positions with a general acceptance of New Deal policies.

The end of income compression has been credited to “impersonal forces”, such as technological change and globalization, but also to political and policy changes that affected institutions (e.g., unions) and norms (e.g., acceptable executive pay). Krugman argues that the rise of “movement conservatism”—a “highly cohesive set of interlocking institutions that brought Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to power”—beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s brought lower taxes on the rich and significant holes in the social safety net. The relative power of unions declined significantly along with union membership, and executive pay rose considerably relative to average worker pay. The reversal of the great compression has been called “the Great Divergence” by Krugman and is the title of a Slate article and book by Timothy Noah.[9] Krugman also notes that era before the Great Divergence was one not only of relative equality but of economic growth far surpassing the “Great Divergence”.

Great Compression (Wikipedia)

The major obstacles to implementing ideas that would reduce inequality today are the Neoliberal ideas which are embraced to one extent or another by both major political parties in the U.S. The polices that would accomplish this compression—and I would argue allowed capitalism to continue to function at all—are now only advocated by people who are considered to be “far Left,” and are depicted as Stalinists, Maoists, and utterly reviled by the conservative media, including Fox News (where Peterson is a frequent guest).

Want to decrease suicide? Raise the minimum wage, researchers suggest (CBS News)

I purposely did not quote from Peterson’s opening 30 minute remarks, which I thought were not nearly as good, largely because they focused on a criticism of Marxism was obviously not well-informed. Admittedly, Zizek did not seize on this, instead reading a rambling and prepared statement which basically constituted his personal  intellectual hobby-horses and did not really address the topic at hand. Here, I will again quote Peter Joseph:

“My focus here will be Jordan Peterson’s [arguments] which are conservative and are on the side of capitalism, if you will…What he does is create a massive straw man, addressing and criticizing the Communist Manifesto, written almost 200 years ago by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. His attacks on this book, which as I will explain, are extremely poorly thought out and just wrong, become a proxy for attacks on contemporary activists and thinkers looking to alter the capitalist structure or remove it. His perspective is consistently Libertarian in the modern sense of the word, and his pathological fetish with taking a psychological position rather than any kind of synergistic, sociological relationship in terms of causality or social structure, is to me what makes him one of the more regressive intellectuals out there today, especially considering how popular he has become.”

“And since I’m about to be thrown in to defending Marx, and Progressive thoughts in general, let me make on thing extremely clear. I am not a Marxist, or a Communist, or a Socialist, or whatever. I don’t identify with any of that. I see Marx’s writing as equivalent to other philosophers, from Thomas Hobbes, to Hegel, to Thorstein Veblen, and many others. It’s all information; and some of it is good, some of it is bad–you weigh it all out. The faster all of you people see all of this as information rather than ideological dualities or symbols of something, the faster we can progress the conversation.”

“Likewise, let me clarify one other very important thing. Those that invoke disapproval of historical communism–and rightly so–almost universally say it was a consequence of the writings of Karl Marx. And I would argue that it’s a consequence of the writings of Karl Marx in the same way the Columbine massacre was a consequence of the music of Marilyn Manson. Any respected historian and theorist recognizes that the Soviet Union was actually state capitalism in the extreme. It never achieved any level of theoretical socialism, and certainly not Communism, and if you look at the writings of Vladimir Lenin, he admits to this fact. And again, that’s not defending anything; I’m being intellectually accurate…”

Indeed, it is important to be intellectually accurate, although I don’t know if I’d qualify all of Peterson’s statements as explicitly libertarian, though. Some of it is, but in a few important ways he strays from the libertarian orthodoxy. For example, in his 10-minute response, he says the following:

“I mean, it isn’t obvious to me when Dr. Zizek is speaking in more apocalyptic terms…that we can solve the problems that confront us. And its also not a message that I’ve been purveying that unbridled capitalism, per se, as an isolated social-economic structure, actually constitutes the proper answer to the problems that confront us. I haven’t made that case in anything I’ve written, or any of the lectures that I’ve done, because I don’t believe it to be true…”

Although I’m not how he reconciles this with doing videos for ultralibertarian propaganda outlet PragerU, and similar groups, for instance. But that’s another matter.

It seems that what Peterson really rejects is authoritarianism, which he erroneously conflates with Marxism. If he made a distinction between the two, I would take him more seriously. Authoritarianism—where power is exercised by whim and naked, raw power and without the rule of law and democratic oversight—is the real villain that led to all those needless deaths. Such absolutism can be embraced by people on either side of the political spectrum. Criticize that, absolutely, but don’t smear a long intellectual tradition using silly conspiracy theories, especially if you have not read any of the relevant literature. And, by the way, there are psychologists who’ve done serious, empirical work probing the psychological basis of behind authoritarian political beliefs—Robert Altmeyer in particular—and I wish Peterson would pay more attention to this scientific work (in his own field!) rather than spending all his time bashing “radical Leftists” feminists and “Postmodern Neo-Marxists.” I think he’d be more effective this way if he really is serious about preventing that sort of thinking, and not just bashing phantom enemies. Identity politics, too is a serious problem that crops up on both the Left and Right ends of the political spectrum (anyone remember Sarah Palin and her “real” Americans?)

As Ben Burgis trenchantly noted, Friedrich Nietzsche was appropriated by the National Socialist movement in Germany, and many Nazis were big fans of his writing. But that is unfair to Nietzsche—not only was he not around to defend himself, but he was opposed to things like German nationalism and antisemitism during his lifetime. Yet Peterson has no problem with studying the works and thoughts of Nietzsche. So why does that same logic not hold for those who want to study Karl Marx?

Peterson concludes his statement with this:

“I’ll close with this…There is a positive relationship between economics as measured by income and happiness, on psychological well-being which might be the absence of misery. I certainly do not believe—and the evidence does not suggest—that material security is sufficient. I do believe, however, that insofar as there is a relationship between happiness and material security, that the free market system has demonstrated itself as the most efficient manner to achieve that, and that was actually the terms of the argument.”

“So that’s if the argument is capitalism versus socialism with regards to human happiness. It’s still the case that the free market constitutes the clear winner. And maybe capitalism will not solve our problems. I actually don’t believe that it will. I have in fact argued that the proper pathway forward is one of individual moral responsibility aimed at the highest good, and something for me that’s rooted in our underlying Judeo-Christian tradition that insists that each person is sovereign in their own right, and a locus of ultimate value; which is something that you can accept regardless of your religious presuppositions, and something that you do accept if you participate in a society such as ours. Even the fact that you vote—that you’re charged with that responsibility—is an indication that our society is structured such that we presume that each person is a locus of responsibility and decision-making, of such import that the very stability of the state depends upon the integrity of their character.”

“And so what I’ve been suggesting to people is that they adopt as much responsibility as they possibly can, in keeping with their aim of the highest possible good, which to me is something approximating a balance between what’s good for you as an individual, and what’s good for your family, in keeping with what’s good for you as an individual, and then what’s good for society in the larger frame, such that it’s also good for you and your family. And that’s a form of an elaborated, iterative game; a form of cooperation. It’s a sophisticated way of looking at the ways society can possibly be organized, and I happen to believe that that has to happen at the individual level first, and that’s the pathway forward that I see.”

So there’s much to like here. I’ll note that every single criticism of Peterson I’ve read from the Left—including my own—do not have any objections to his attempt to help people accept responsibility and lead better lives. None. Not one. In fact, most such commentaries are usually highly complimentary and supportive of his attempts to do so. The worst I’ve read about his advice is a dismissal of it as simplistic, facile, or merely common-sense. Clearly, it is not simplistic or common-sense, otherwise there would not be such a receptive audience for his ideas, and such remarks smack more of bitterness than anything else. So I think we should take these efforts by Peterson seriously.

Here’s what I see as Peterson’s most important idea: I think that, sometimes, people use the problems of the world-at-large as a cop-out to avoid dealing with their own problems. In addition to that, people do sometimes use their anger at the wider society as an excuse to justify their own fuck-ups. They rationalize every failure as someone else’s fault instead of accepting the appropriate responsibility for their own actions and behavior. And also, they project their own personal disasters out onto the world as objective facts, when they are really just reflections of one’s own personal issues.

These are real phenomena! And to the extent that Peterson points them out, and helps people to overcome them, I think he does a great job, and I give him all the credit for that. People do sometimes wrap themselves in their own anger and misanthropy when really they should be focusing on fixing themselves and making improvements to their  surroundings, including their relationships with their immediate friends and family, and improving their ability to function as a competent individual in the world.

Focus on being a good person first. Do things that contribute to society and to your own family’s well-being. Focus on those first instead of perceived slights and injustices, many of which are subjective anyway. Realize the world is sometimes unfair, no matter what you do.

Yes, absolutely. 100% agree.

Okay, now for the “but.” There are a lot of problems that cannot be solved at the individual level. For example, if you take responsibility by getting training for an essential profession, and you are crippled with student loan debt because of that, that cannot be solved at the individual level. Similarly, if you have a medical condition where some company buys the patent on your medication and jacks up the price 2000 percent, that is not something that can be solved at the individual level. I’m sure you can come up with numerous other examples.

By keeping us all isolated, working perennially on ourselves alone, it prevents any kind of constructive change. We become solipsistic. We are all a part of society, and cannot cut ourselves off from it. Zizek himself makes this case at one point. He points out that telling someone suffering under the dictatorship of North Korea to make their bed, or to set their own house in perfect order, is ridiculous. The thing that brought down the Berlin Wall was people getting fed up with the system and taking collective social action. The thing that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union was people taking collective social action.

The two are not in opposition. You can work on your own house, sure, but you are still influenced by the broader society around you, and that is unavoidable. And we can and should make that society better, if we can, and that sometimes involves collective action and—dare I it say it—social justice.

“What I don’t quite get—why do you put so much emphasis on ‘We have to begin with personal change?’ This is the first or the second—forgive me I don’t remember—of [the] slogans in your book. You know, ‘First set your house in order, then…'”

“But I have an extremely common-sense naïve question here. What if, in trying to set your house in order, you discover that your house is in this order precisely because the way the society is messed up? Which doesn’t mean, ‘Okay, Let’s forget about my house,’ but you can do both at the same time.”

“I will give you now the argument example: yourself. Isn’t it that you are so socially active because you realize that it’s not enough to tell your patients ‘Set your house in order?’ Much of the reason of why they are in disorder is that there is some crisis in our society…So my reproach to you would be…you know that joke, ‘Tea or coffee? Yes, please.’ Like, ‘Individual or social? ‘Yes, please.'”

“This is obviously an extreme situation…I hope we agree [that] to say to somebody in North Korea, ‘Set your house in order, ha ha!’ But I think in some deeper sense it goes also for our society. I’m just repeating what you are [saying]. You see some kind of a social crisis, and I don’t see clearly why you insist so much on this choice…”

On a final note, there seems to be little correlation to a county’s overall wealth and the observed happiness of its citizens in any case. In many cases, the connection is actually inverted, as in the case of South Korea:

My native South Korea is something of a star performer. With per capita income of around $20,000 (on a par with Portugal), it is not one of the richest countries, but we are talking about a country whose income was less than half that of Ghana’s until the early 1960s. With an annual per capita income growth rate of just under 4%, it is one of the fastest-growing OECD economies.

Once a byword for hyper-exploited sweatshop labour, churning out cheap transistor radios and trainers, the country now possesses the only thing that stands between iPhone and world domination (the Samsung Galaxy). It is also a world leader in industries such as shipbuilding, steel and automobiles.

The country is, per capita, the third most innovative in the world, after Japan and Taiwan, when measured by the number of patents granted by the US patent office. It has one of the world’s highest university enrollment ratios, and schoolchildren who rank in the top five in virtually all standardised international tests.

So, when things seem to be going so swimmingly, why are Koreans clamouring for big changes in the run-up to the general election next week? Because they are desperately unhappy.

According to a recent World Values Survey, Koreans are the second unhappiest people (after Hungary) among the citizens of the 32 OECD countries studied. Worse, its children are the unhappiest in the rich world, according to a survey of 23 OECD countries done by Yonsei University in Seoul. In 2009 the country topped the international league table for suicides, with 28.4 suicides per 100,000 people. Japan was a distant second with 19.7. But Koreans never used to be this unhappy. Until 1995 its suicide rate was, at about 10 per 100,000 people, just below the OECD average. Since then it has almost tripled.

South Korea’s economic reforms – a recipe for unhappiness (The Guardian)

Recently, yet another survey came out, this one supposedly on the “most stressed” and “least stressed” countries in the world. What’s interesting is that both the top and bottom of the scale tend to be relatively poor countries. The top countries were all in Latin America, while the bottom were all in Africa or the Middle East. Of course, the bottom countries tended to be failed states or theocracies dealing with acute hunger and civil war. Apparently Chad has the most negative experiences, which I could have told you from personal experience, LoL.

The annual Gallup Global Emotions Report asked people about their positive and negative experiences. The most negative country was Chad, followed by Niger. The most positive country was Paraguay, the report said. The US was the 39th most positive country, the UK was 46th and India ranked 93rd.

Interviewees were asked questions such as “did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” and “were you treated with respect?” in a bid to gain an insight into people’s daily experiences.Around 71% of people said they experienced a considerable amount of enjoyment the day before the survey. The poll found that levels of stress were at a new high, while levels of worry and sadness also increased. Some 39% of those polled said they had been worried the day before the survey, and 35% were stressed.

Latin American countries including Paraguay, Panama and Guatemala topped the list of positive experiences, where people reported “feeling a lot of positive emotions each day.” The poll claims it is reflective of the cultural tendency in Latin America to “focus on life’s positives”.

Despite Chad’s high score for negative experiences, people in the US and Greece were more stressed than Chadians. Greece had the most stressed population in the world with 59% saying they experienced stress on the day before the poll. Around 55% of US adults said they were stressed.

World is angry and stressed, Gallup report says (BBC)

To me, this indicates that happiness has as much to with culture as with economic systems, unless the system can’t produce the most basic Maslowian needs like housing, healthcare, food and personal safety. Zizek makes some interesting comments along these lines in his first 10-minute statement, which would seem to apply to Latin America:

“Years ago I was in Lithuania, and we debated when were people in some perverted sense–and this is the critique of the category of happiness for me–happy. And we came to the crazy result: Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s [after the Soviet intervention]. Why? For happiness, first, you should not have too much democracy, because this brings the burden of responsibility. Happiness means there is another guy out there and you can put all the blame on him. As the joke went in Czechoslovakia, if there is bad weather, or a storm, [some] Communist screwed it up again.”

“The other condition, the much more subtle condition–is that life was relatively, moderately good, but not perfect. Like, there was meat, but maybe once month there was no meat in the stores. It was very good to remind you how happy you were [when there was meat.] Another thing, they had a paradise which should be at a proper distance: West Germany–affluence. It was not too far, but was not directly accessible.”

So, maybe in your critique of Communist regimes–which I agree with you–you should more focus on something that I experienced. Don’t look only at the terror; at the totalitarian regime. There was a kind of a silent, perverted pact between power and the population, which was: ‘Leave us the power and don’t mess with us, and we guarantee you a relatively safe life, employment, private pleasures, private needs, and so on.’ For me, this is not an argument for the Communists, but against happiness…You know, people said, when the wall fell down, ‘What a wonder!’ in Poland. Solidarnosc, which was prohibited a year ago, now now triumphed in the elections. Who could imagine this? Yes, but the true miracle, in a bad sense, was that four years later democratically the ex-communists came back to power.

For me, this is not an argument for them, but simply for the, let’s call it, the corrupted nature of happiness. My basic formula is: Happiness should be treated as a necessary by-product. If you focus on it you are lost. It comes as a by-product of you working for a cause. That’s the basic thing for me…”