View from
The Left

A Critique of Jordan Peterson

Why does Peterson get this so wrong? He simply doesn’t care to present a more complex narrative that would problematize his cute and hyperbolic story about the left.”

Since his 2016 statements in opposition to Canada’s Bill C-16, Jordan Peterson has rocketed to international fame and infamy. On the right, he has been the subject of laudatory and even hagiographic praise in the pages of the National Post and the National Review. Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire has published a string of articles praising Peterson and dismissing his critics for publishing “dishonest, malicious crap” about him. All this furor led The New York Times to christen Peterson as the most “influential public intellectual in the world.”  

On the left, criticism has been equally scathing. Tabatha Southey of Macleans characterized Peterson as “the stupid man’s smart person.” The same The New York Times that acknowledged his influence called Peterson the “custodian of patriarchy.” The prestigious New York Review of Books ran an article by Pankaj Mishra discussing the eerie proximity of many of Peterson’s opinions to those of fascists and rightwing mystics. And so on.

Maps of Meaning and Twelve Rules for Life

I find many of these often hyperbolic observations, both laudatory and damning, to be disproportionate to the actual content of Peterson’s academic work and lectures. Overall, he is a reasonably good academic when he writes and speaks about subjects he’s familiar with. I think one’s tolerance for his actual arguments depend a great deal on one’s acceptance of the primarily Jungian theoretical framework he relies on. Peterson is concerned to show that the archetypal images and narratives which emerge from our unconscious mythological, literary, and religious heritage contain psychological wisdom and clues into how human beings establish meaning in our lives. I’ve always found Jung quite interesting, if occasionally grandiose, so I appreciate some of what Peterson says.

Peterson’s first book, Maps of Meaning, invokes Jung, Nietzsche, and a host of other major thinkers to try and describe how and why human beings formulate their sense of life’s significance. Much of this involves an indepth analysis of ancient mythology and religion. Peterson’s analysis is often intriguing but involves no small bit of grandstanding. Indeed, the book includes a letter Peterson wrote to his father discussing the alleged gravity of his discoveries:

I don’t know, Dad, but I think I have discovered something that no one else has any idea about, and I’m not sure I can do it justice. Its scope is so broad that I can see only parts of it clearly at one time, and it is exceedingly difficult to set down comprehensibly in writing…. Anyways, I’m glad you and Mom are doing well.”

This comes across as more than a little hyperbolic and arrogant. Indeed, Peterson is very much at home with other rightwing intellectuals-notably Heidegger-who ascribed their work as a tremendous social significance disproportionate to what one might expect from an academic tome on myth, psychology, and meaning. But Maps of Meaning does contain some interesting and occasionally even profound insights into subjects as diverse as the role of Lucifer in Christian mythology and eschatology and even a few interesting asides on the modernized form of these archetypes in comic books and blockbuster cinema.  

Peterson’s second book, 12 Rules for Life, draws on this theoretical framework but updates it with more humanizing case studies drawn from Peterson’s private life, his work as a professional psychologist in Toronto, and from public history. The book is mainly designed as a self-help manual, albeit one that draws on the wide range of theoretical interests initially presented in Maps of Meaning. Understood that way, much of the advice Peterson offers strikes me as well intended. It certainly has proven inspiring to its audience of mostly youngish men. 12 Rules for Life also includes some interesting asides, such as his analysis of the psychic motivations of the Columbine killers and their “religious” belief in the worthlessness of human life. Peterson is a fan of Dostoevsky, and his writing can occasionally invoke the infernal power of Crime and Punishment or the chapters on Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov.

Jordan Peterson and the Left

The major problems I have with Jordan Peterson emerge when he tries to extend his ideas into politics. Here things get rather murky. Despite having a partial undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of Alberta, Peterson has little professional background writing or researching on politics or political theory. His academic work discussing politics largely consists of writing papers relating psychological dispositions to very broadly defined political ideologies, and scattered comments throughout his two major books. Many of his comments are passionately articulated but hyperbolic. Few are well argued.

“Today, the leftists pushing for unbalanced chaos are “collectivist” identity politics activists guided by radical post-modern neo-Marxist philosophies.”

Maps of Meaning established the theoretical binary which seems to guide Peterson’s approach to politics. This is the binary between masculine order and feminine chaos, which Peterson finds archetypally represented in a number of mythological, religious and literary cultures. He believes that conservatives tend to psychologically veer towards favoring order and tradition, while the left veers towards favoring chaos and transformation. Peterson believes that societies require both tradition-minded conservatives and creative progressives to remain balanced. Where they become imbalanced, as in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, societies become increasingly totalitarian or anarchic. Peterson argues that contemporary Western societies have veered too far towards favoring left-wing chaos, and have resultantly abandoned the traditions and mores which have unconsciously guided us towards wise decisions and the establishment of an enduring civilization. Today, the leftists pushing for unbalanced chaos are “collectivist” identity politics activists guided by radical post-modern neo-Marxist philosophies.

Jordan Peterson is concerned about the ascendency of the post-modern left because he sees it as eerily reminiscent, even inspired by, the collectivist philosophy of the Soviet Union. Drawing on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s profoundly tragic account of Soviet atrocities in The Gulag Archipelago, Peterson asserts that the moral legitimacy of Marxism was forever destroyed by the mid-20th century. As a consequence, the Left no longer had a respectable philosophical framework to draw upon. As a result, it turned to post-modern neo-Marxism, which is effectively the same collectivist philosophy except now generalized beyond the class bases analysis characteristic of Marx’s work.  

Guided by post-modern neo-Marxist philosophers like Foucault and Derrida, the Left has gone beyond just criticizing class based exploitation. The Left now criticizes the impact of all forms of power; especially its impact on so called marginalized groups in society. Because power is understood very broadly, and impacts a huge number of different groups, this has meant the Left is increasingly concerned to tear down all traditions and mores in society in its quest for “equality of outcome” across all social groups. Peterson is concerned that this even more radically “collectivist” philosophy is very dangerous and will lead to the formation of a “vast” and totalitarian bureaucracy that will oversee and police our every actions, right down to the way we address one another. This is why Peterson believes it is plausible to link a trans-rights activist with a Maoist revolutionary; the collectivist “philosophy which guides their utterances is the same” since both mobilize group identity to allegedly push for equality of outcomes while destroying classical liberal freedoms. It is also why Peterson ascribes such insidious significance to campus radicals and their attempts to shut down free speech through acts of shaming, establishing prohibitions, and even violence. Far better that these activists take some time to set their own lives in order before criticizing the world, after which they would apparently recognize the wisdom of Peterson, and those like him, who venerate our auspicious traditions and mores.  

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Jordan Peterson on Marxism

There are a wide number of problems with Peterson’s characterization of the Left. Firstly, it is pretty clear that Peterson simply doesn’t know that much about Left-wing theory or activism. Take his characterizations of both Marxism and so-called post-modern neo-Marxism. Petersons’ decision to blame Marxist philosophy for the appalling crimes of the Soviet Union and Maoist China is deeply problematic. There is an extensive literature on the relation between the Marxism and the communist regimes, but virtually no scholar argues that either the Soviets or the Maoists were in any way faithful to Marx’s initial theories. To give an example, both Lenin and Mao launched communist revolutions in poor developing countries wracked by war. This is in staunch contrast to Marx’s insistence that Communism could only take root in developed states where the “means of production” were highly advanced. Or to give another example, Marx argued that global capitalism was wracked by contradictions which would eventually exacerbate economic and political crises around the globe. But Soviet Communism and Maoist China both emerged during periods when the capitalist economy was either chugging along or booming. These examples, and many others, undermine the claim that Marxist philosophy inevitably leads to the gulag and the Great Leap Forward. Peterson might contest this by arguing that the root problem is the “collectivist” and anti-traditionalist philosophy underpinning Marxism. This is a very shallow reading of Marx, who was concerned for individual freedoms and criticized capitalism for destroying traditional values. It also ascribes undue blame for the impact one’s philosophy might have on others. Peterson might think that invoking Solzhenitsyn is a decisive rebuttal, but I remain unimpressed. Much as I would be if someone were to present an account of the Spanish conquest of Latin America, approved by the Pope and responsible for the deaths of 187 million people over the century, as a decisive rebuttal of Christianity as a whole. Or if someone invoked the Nazis’ reverence for Nietzsche, a favorite author of Peterson, as a reason not to read the great German thinker.

But Peterson is not essentially concerned with Marxism. Peterson lazily believes Marxism is so thoroughly discredited he is apparently above actually engaging with what Marx or intelligent Marxists like Fredric Jameson, a scathing critic of postmodernism, have actually said. Instead, Peterson is concerned with what he calls postmodern neoMarxism. But is there such a thing?

Jordan Peterson on “Postmodern Neo-Marxism”

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The idea that postmodernism is simply Marxism by another name would surely surprise many on the Left who regard the two as inimical to one another. Postmodernism largely emerged as a reaction against the thoroughly modernist narrative underpinning Marxist theory. It is an aesthetic and philosophical rejection of the “grand narrative” claims of individuals like Marx, who believed that there was a “science of history” which could be discerned by acute dialectical materialists. Post-modernists in the vein of Foucault and Derrida problematize the idea that one can develop such objective “sciences;” inadvertently aligning themselves with a long undercurrent of skeptics in Western thought which can be traced back to the Sophists of Ancient Athens. While Marx was certainly an influence on postmodern thinking, as he was an influence on economists, writers, and sociologists, Marxism is in no way a direct precursor to postmodernism. If anything, many Marxists are damningly critical of postmodernism in all its variants.

Why does Peterson get this so wrong? I think the answer is he simply doesn’t know much about it or doesn’t care to present a more complex narrative that would problematize his cute and hyperbolic story about the left. During his lectures, Peterson has admitted to reading a fair bit of Foucault and struggling with Derrida, which is hardly a basis for such sweeping generalizations. These problems persist in his written work. In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson primarily targets, indeed conflates, the Frankfurt School of Critical theory and Derrida. But he only cites a single book by one member of the Frankfurt School and largely ignores any of Derrida’s substantial works. This is a deeply shallow sample of the literature that makes one wonder whether Peterson has actually read many authors in a tradition he claims to understand and vilifies. If he had, he would know that many authors in the Frankfurt school, including its contemporary proponents like Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, are highly critical of post-modernism and everything it stands for.

Finally, Peterson argues that the post-modern neo-Marxists press for the destruction of all social hierarchies and the attainment of full equality-equality of outcomes rather than opportunity-for all marginalized groups. He worries that this will lead to the establishment of a totalitarian bureaucracy. It is hard to even argue against this since so few-if any-Leftists actually argue that all hierarchies should be destroyed and outcomes equalized for all. Perhaps he is thinking of G.A Cohen or Jacques Rancierre, who occasionally flirted with such hyper-egalitarian claims. But neither are post-modernist thinkers, nor have there more extreme arguments gained much currency.

“When you boil it down, most of Peterson’s aversion toward the Left stems from a distaste for the style of its activists, rather than anything of substance.”

Conclusion

When you boil it down, most of Peterson’s aversion toward the Left stems from a distaste for the style of its activists, rather than anything of substance. This also accounts for much of his popularity on the right, which has long held that academia and leftwing activism suppress the expression of conservative views. Whether his characterization of the Left’s positions is right or not, many people “feel” the same way about progressive activists as Jordan Peterson, and so just assume he must be correct in his characterization.

I have some sympathy with his criticisms of leftwing activism, as indeed do other leftist thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek. Indeed, many contemporary leftwing thinkers have both abandoned post-modernism and are highly critical of political correctness, though Peterson seems unaware of this. But a distaste for identity politics-which has been around in liberal societies since at least the Abolitionist movement and in many ways is a thoroughly liberal form of activism and political correctness is not a license to engage in shallow generalizations about one’s political opponents. Peterson can be an intelligent and knowing scholar when he knows what he is talking about and reigns in his worst impulses. But he cheapens intellectual discourse when he deals with caricatures and hyperbole rather than really engaging the ideas of his political opponents.  

Matt McManus recently completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. Matt can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca.