“Despite these contrasts, one of the striking things about the debate was how frequently Zizek and Peterson seemed to agree with one another.”
Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson cut two very different figures in their recent debate at the Sony Center in Toronto, Canada. The former was dressed in a T-Shirt, and he was often hunched over, firing off dirty jokes and toilet humor. The latter was a model of svelte sophistication, well-dressed and consistently poised. As typical, Žižek went on a more than few extended tangents, occasionally giving off the airs of a freestyling poet decades younger. Peterson was far more modulated in his presentation, though sadly that analyticity didn’t always extend to his treatment of the subject at hand. Despite these contrasts, one of the striking things about the debate was how frequently Žižek and Peterson seemed to agree with one another. Indeed, one of the consistent criticisms of the debate was that it was disappointingly devoid of the antagonistic fireworks many were hoping for. Indeed, some critics have characterized it as a hubristic affair overall, more about stoking the egos and reputations of the participants than actually engaging in a serious discussion about political differences.
The Politics of Post-Modernity
I think there is something to these critiques, which will likely leave anyone looking for a clash of ideologies cold. The debate opened with Peterson’s extensive analysis of the Communist Manifesto, which, while clear, generally came across more as a stab at vulgar Marxism rather than the substantial positions of Marx himself. For instance, Peterson largely avoided dealing with Marx’s quite subtle observation in the Manifesto that more than any other social system, capitalism transforms the traditional societies around it. When, “all that is holy is profaned” through capitalist processes, it may well make the search for “meaning” in the traditions Peterson admires quite challenging. He also misinterpreted Marx and Engels for apparently not engaging with the human relationship to nature, particularly their praise for how under capitalism, “subjection of nature’s forces to man” have reached an apex previous epochs like the feudal age could only dream of.
This, of course, reflects the deeper engagement with nature one finds in Marxist works like The German Ideology, which extensively details how the creative application of labor to the world distinguishes humans from (most) animals. Peterson was more convincing on the general point about capitalism producing a huge volume of material goods which have improved the global quality of life, but he was more dismissive when questions about its ability to handle environmental and demographic crises came up. He was also notably non-committal about how much state intervention can be justified to rectify inequality, which, of course, is a major political issue at this time. Peterson mostly brushed the issue off by suggesting that different states are experimenting with different levels of redistribution, which as I pointed out elsewhere evades the deeper question about whether one such model—or even one more radical—may well be the most just.
For his part, Žižek also danced around a number of fundamental political issues without providing many concrete answers. He often conceded that capitalism had indeed raised the quality of life for many, rightly pointing out that Marx and Engels occasionally made the same kinds of observations. Žižek also highlighted concerns that the post-Cold War consensus that capitalization will lead to a respect for liberal rights and the development of democratic institutions appears to be unfounded. In many respects, China’s authoritarian capitalism may be a closer approximation of our future than East German integration into a European social democracy.
Finally, Žižek echoed his argument in Living in the End Times that capitalism seems unable to deal with several major crises on the horizon, including catastrophic climate change, the technologically-driven emergence of post-humanism, the emergence of new ethnic and social divisions, and demographic changes brought on by immigration and refugees from new war zones. Peterson often conceded that these are genuine concerns but then rightly rebutted that Žižek offers very little in the way of concrete solutions to these problems. What one got were quite vague claim about wanting greater freedom for individuals to develop their various creative potentials and an emphasis on how a more robust and less hierarchical democracy must impose a sense of responsibility among its citizens. While I personally have some sympathy to such claims, they were not defined with a great deal of specificity. This leant some weight to Peterson’s rebuttals that capitalism may well be a bad system but that it seems superior to those yet tried, and critics have yet to formulate a new model to experiment with.
Interestingly enough, these political differences were often fairly marginal next to the substantial agreements Peterson and Žižek reached. As put by Sam Miller and Harrison Fluss in their fine Jacobin article on the debate, both Peterson and Žižek seemed unwilling to put forward more concrete solutions to today’s problems because they share an inherent pessimism. Peterson has frequently stated that life is fundamentally suffering. Žižek has frequently described himself as a pessimist beneath all the irreverence, even celebrating the courage of hopelessness. I largely agree that such shared pessimism is fueled less by politics and more from Peterson and Žižek’s shared interest in existential analysis and psychoanalysis. As Miller and Fluss point out:
“Over and over again, Peterson and Žižek cited the Judeo-Christian tradition (or the “Western” tradition) as their starting point, but this is an existentialist tradition a la Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, and not the rationalist tradition of Hegel and Marx. Žižek invoked Hegel as opposed to Marx as his philosophical hero, but this is a Hegelianism without dialectical resolution, turning Hegel’s contradictions into irresolvable antinomies. Alienation, for Žižek and Peterson, is baked into the cake of existence itself. Both see the human condition as inherently tragic, either through the lens of biology, psychoanalysis, or metaphysics. Essentially, we are all doomed to failure and frustration, no matter what the economic and political regime may be.”
Existentialism and psychoanalysis are, in some respects, highly different approaches to the human subject and personality. But they share a common belief that we are often subject to intense inclinations which are hard to understand and supersede our rational capacity to truly control. This is especially true of the psychoanalytic tradition, wherein most of the fundamental roots of our inclinations and beliefs are in fact hidden from us. At times they are suppressed in the unconscious mind mapped by Jung, or as Althusser put it: ideology and repressive apparatuses may compel us to believe both ourselves and our actions are our own when they are actually driven by alien forces of our control. Both traditions also stress that the reason these arational forces wield such control is because the meaning we ascribe to our lives cannot be given by reason alone. Unless one is a believer in some higher divine authority, the world simply exists as it is as a pointless and often chaotic sequence of events and objects. This in part explains why both Peterson and Žižek are so keen to look deeply into the Christian tradition to find resolution to the problems posed by their pessimism. While neither can bring themselves to be a believer in the traditional sense, they interpret the transcendent or psychic meaning provided by such religious narratives as a more basic but far more intractable problem than the political disputes. In some senses, political disputes are a surface manifestation or symptom of these deeper problems.
Peterson and Žižek on Meaning
This is why the most interesting exchange of the night—and by far the one which animated both figures the most—was on the subject of Christianity. Peterson reiterated his well-known claim that, whatever their literal truth, the Biblical stories present a unique conception of the single individual struggling for meaning in the world. He then went on to argue that religions express the desire of the single meaning to find out what the highest good they can pursue is—and then imposes a moral injunction to expand one’s powers to engage in that pursuit. In the course of this unending question, one might find something approximating sincere happiness. Of course, this quest is first and foremost and individualistic one, suggesting that there is very little one can politically do to ameliorate it in a meaningful way. This lies at the root of I have called Peterson’s support for political ordered liberty.
Žižek readily agreed with many of these sentiments, though his esoteric interpretation of Christian myth is quite different. According to Žižek, following G.K Chesterton, Christianity is the faith wherein God himself came to doubt the divine plan. On the cross before his death Jesus—the Son of God and an element of the Triune divinity—called out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For Žižek, God’s willingness to humanize himself and die stipulates his willingness to grant human beings true freedom to pursue their own paths in life. The most benevolent and compassionate God is one who ceases to be the tyrannical father and instead becomes a dead God existing as the Holy Spirit through the community of believers. For Žižek, this more communal freedom lies at the root of modern democracy and can be rediscovered as a source of meaning within emancipatory politics.
Despite these more constructive positions, one individualistic and the other more communal and democratic, a strong streak of pessimism still underlies each author’s outlook. Žižek described Hegel’s novel interpretation of the fall of man to Peterson’s enthusiastic approval. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion and elsewhere, Hegel argues that the Christian fall has been widely misunderstood as a descent into evil. In some respects this is true, but it misses a key point. Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden were ignorant of good and evil until they ate of the forbidden fruit. They could neither decide to sin nor to act well, but they only were driven by animalistic instinct and curiosity. Upon realizing they had eaten the fruit, God declares, “Man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil,” and exiles them from paradise.
The deep consequence of this is that Adam and Eve were no longer truly animals—but human subjects capable of knowing good and evil and choosing between them. Despite this, humans would often choose evil and bring untold suffering into the world, as their son Cain did by becoming the first murderer by killing his own brother. The resolution of this, as Peterson and Žižek observe, is that much of the meaning we generate in the world will be destroyed through the folly of human wickedness, envy, and resentment. Žižek is slightly more optimistic that a better kind of politics might be possible, but he remains resolutely pessimistic that most of us will choose the easy conformities offered by ideology and its vulgarity rather than act as free agents to bring about a better world.
I think many progressives, including Miller and Fluss, were disappointed by the debate because it focused so much on seemingly abstract and even religious issues and so little on politics. But there is an important lesson here. Peterson and Žižek are in part popular precisely because they address these big questions head on and seek to provide answers. For many progressives, such religious-seeming issues are either ignored or directly dismissed as remnants of a more primitive age, which secularism will overcome. Figures from Karl Marx to Michel Foucault have often presumed that religion was a reactionary force that would wither away as time went on.
In many ways, religion can be a highly reactionary force, even one promoting great evil. But the issues it addresses about deeper human meaning cannot be answered by simply assuming the correct political system will make them go away. A rejuvenated Left seeking to counter the destabilizing influence of post-modern culture must take the problem of meaning seriously and provide insights that go beyond how to secure greater equality and political participation. Otherwise, it will cede a great deal of ground to conservatives, who have often been more willing to take meaning seriously. This is why the Peterson and Žižek debate should serve as a wakeup call: a contemporary politics which fails to address the issue of meaning may not be politically relevant for long.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf