Peterson-Žižek: Debate of the Century?

At the time of writing, the YouTube videos of the recent debate between the academics Jordan B. Peterson and Slavoj Žižek have attracted well over two million views. Dr Stephen Harper reflects on their mixed impact.

At the time of writing, the YouTube videos of the recent debate between the academics Jordan B. Peterson and Slavoj Žižek have attracted well over two million views. Clearly, this philosophical face-off really mattered to a lot of people. And that’s hardly surprising. After all, Peterson, in particular, has achieved an extraordinary celebrity status as a public intellectual in recent years. But Peterson is also somebody whose arguments must be opposed by anybody who, like me, cares about socialism (or, indeed, about the truth), since his public remarks on the subject are so often misleading and wrong-headed.

I would see Peterson as a conservative liberal (or liberal conservative) figure, rather than a fascist, as some left-wing commentators would have it. But it is true that many of Peterson’s talking points are staples of alt-right discourse and it’s easy to imagine that they serve for many people as a gateway to some disturbing political destinations. After all, in an age of personalised content and YouTube ‘suggested videos’, it’s easy to lose your way. You might decide after dinner to splash around in the digital shallows, casually watching a few J.B.P. vids about Jungian archetypes, the evils of cultural Marxism, or the merits of a meat-based diet. But before long the algorithmic currents of the Internet have swept you towards darker shores. By midnight, you’re retweeting Lauren Southern

Anyway, the ‘debate of the century’, as some people billed it, has spawned numerous blogs, vlogs and print media responses over recent days from much smarter commentators than me and, since I don’t want to rehash points made more eloquently by others, I’ll keep my own comments brief.

Peterson opened with a lengthy disquisition on Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto and Marxism more generally. Unfortunately, he paraded his ignorance of both. For example, he claimed that one of Marx and Engels’s central concerns was ‘equality’. But he should have known that neither man had any time for abstract notions of ‘equality’. A cursory glance at Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme would have established that. There Marx famously identifies the guiding principle of socialism as: ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. Since different groups and individuals will have wildly different abilities and needs, there can be no question of ‘equality’ here.

Another of Peterson’s refrains was that Marx and Marxists simplistically see proletarians as ‘good’ and capitalists as ‘evil’. Now, this moralistic understanding of class is indeed quite widespread among left-wingers. Many leftists do regard being working-class as a badge of honour – a positive, even heroic identity (these same leftists, in my experience, often like to signal their ‘salt of the earth’ credentials by adopting ‘working-class’ accents, clothing, and so on). Theirs is what Gáspár Tamás calls the Rousseauian view of the working class. But Marxists do not share this view. They know very well that the working class is composed of rapists, thugs and sociopaths, as well as many kind, decent and gentle people. In other words, for Marxists, there is nothing fundamentally ‘good’ about working-class people. To be working-class is simply to occupy a certain position in the production process; it also means that one has an interest in ending this state of affairs.

Some leftist critics have faulted Žižek for failing to address Peterson’s misunderstandings of Marxism point for point. That kind of direct approach would have been consistent with the juvenile belligerence that characterises so much of today’s online culture wars (Click Here! Žižek DESTROYS Peterson with FACTS and LOGIC!!!), but it’s really not in the Slovenian’s nature to debate in this way (note the restraint that Žižek showed when Will Self recently goaded him in a public debate). And in any case, Žižek did not fail to address Peterson’s mistakes, although he generally did so with a light touch. At one point, he even challenged Peterson to name some representatives of the ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’ that the Canadian seems to be so anxious about in many of his polemics. Of course, Peterson was unable to name a single one, since they don’t really exist – an epic fail that required no further comment from Žižek. The superficiality of Peterson’s anti-Marxist crusade was painfully exposed.

In his own presentation, Žižek made several salient critiques of left-liberal identity politics (albeit nothing that his followers won’t have heard before – Žižek, after all, is the copy-paste king). This may be why even alt-right commentators praised aspects of Žižek’s performance. In his video commentary on the debate, the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, for example, nodded along with many of Žižek’s points. But the fact that even some white supremacists can agree with some of Žižek’s arguments doesn’t in itself invalidate those arguments. I certainly would disagree, however, with Žižek’s cautious, reformist suggestion that capitalism needs to be ‘regulated’ (rather than completely overthrown). Then again, Žižek has never unambiguously aligned himself with communism and identifies as a Hegelian rather than a Marxist.

There was little in this debate to surprise followers of either Peterson or Žižek and certainly my view of both figures was unchanged after two and half hours of hearing them talk. It was certainly not the debate of the century. But it sure got a lot of people talking. Indeed, perhaps an optimistic conclusion to draw from the widespread interest in the event is that there does seem to be some public appetite for the discussion of ‘big ideas’. In what can feel like an age of stultifying technocracy, intellectual conformity and post-politics, that is no bad thing.

Picture by Quist used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.