“Peterson himself described some of its symptomatic features in Maps of Meaning when he discusses how the breakdown of traditional mythopoetic traditions generated a sense of nihilistic uncertainty…”
e live in an increasingly chaotic world. This owes much to the precarity engendered by 21st century neoliberalism, which put forward the allure of unlimited personal freedom so long as working people and minorities abandoned their civic capacity to demand egalitarian change. In the aftermath of the 2008 Recession—when the contradictions and instabilities of the Washington consensus and neoliberal governance exposed the naked emperor in all his ideological frailty—one saw a resurgence of energy on the Left. Many once more saw the opportunity to push for a fairer world, where resources and power were distributed in a more just manner. These developments are climaxing now in the push to get genuinely Left candidates into office in both the United Kingdom and the United States, which would solidify a major sea change in the politics of developed states.
The Decay of the Post-Modern Epoch
For all the optimism this may induce, every progressive step forward brings with it the risk of conservative reaction. We are currently inhabiting a highly reactionary period, with post-modern conservatives like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson advancing right-wing agendas designed to re-entrench traditional authority figures (and groups) atop the social hierarchy. Many are calling for the retreat of democracy or are castigating the advance of marginalized groups who agitate for their fair share, dismissing them as the resentful, ungrateful product of so called “post-modern neo Marxist” indoctrination. By far the most famous intellectual associated with this pushback is Jordan Peterson. The Canadian psychologist and University of Toronto Professor is the author of the best-selling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos and has millions of followers on YouTube and Twitter. He is also well-known as a critic of the “radical left,” characterizing social justice activists as totalitarian and offer scathing denunciations of progressive thinkers and agitators. Peterson is also a frequent guest at various conservative media outlets to denounce the evils of political correctness and identity politics. These efforts have made him a hero to many conservatives, while also catalyzing an onslaught of progressive commentary pointing out the numerous flaws in his analysis. These shortcomings range from his questionable understanding of left-wing theory to his unfortunate tendency to associate with some unsavory figures on the far-right, which cost him a prestigious gig at Cambridge. These critiques are often well-founded, but so far there has been a lack of systematic engagement with his thinking as a whole. This includes a lack of in-depth examination of his works such as Maps of Meaning and his other academic publications.
The book also includes a lengthy introduction by Slavoj Žižek, which both examines the place of Peterson in contemporary culture and looks back on their debate several months ago.
Our book Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson is intended to fill this gap. It is going to be released on April 24th with Zero Books. It examines Peterson’s intellectual output and offers comprehensive criticisms of many dimensions of his thought, ranging from his support for capitalism to his denunciation of the post-modern left. It is written by four authors, Matt McManus, Ben Burgis, Conrad Hamilton, and Marion Trejo, each of whom brings their respective expertise to the table when examining Peterson’s work. The book also includes a lengthy introduction by Slavoj Žižek, which both examines the place of Peterson in contemporary culture and looks back on their debate several months ago.
One of the major topics of analysis is the nature of post-modernity and how to deal with it. Post-modernism is typically described as a left-wing philosophical outlook, and it is often misleadingly lumped in with a number of different forms of identity politics such as radical feminism. However, these various other approaches such as radical feminism have independently complex genealogies and outlooks. While there are certainly left-wing forms of political agitation, post-modernity is better interpreted as a cultural condition characteristic of late 20th and early 21st century life. Peterson himself described some of its symptomatic features in Maps of Meaning when he discusses how the breakdown of traditional mythopoetic traditions generated a sense of nihilistic uncertainty, leading some to retreat into cynicism and others to embrace new dogmatisms.
What Peterson misses is the way in which capitalist processes contributed to the upending of traditional values and the establishment of an increasingly relativistic culture. Professor Gabriel Andrade expressed a similar point in his recent article “Listen Jordan Peterson, Marx Is Your Friend.” The characteristic feature of capitalism—as Marx and Engels expressed in The Communist Manifesto—is that it is a revolutionary mode of production where “all that is sacred is profaned” and, “everything that is solid melts into air.” The logic of capital is to quantify the value of everything in the world so commodities can be placed into relations of exchange with one another. Each thing that exists has its price. This is true even of human beings, which even the classical liberals like Kant insisted should not be subjected to the quantifiable appraisals of capital. For Kant, each human being possessed an inherent dignity which placed a person, “beyond price.” By contrast in the neoliberal capitalist era of the 21st century, human beings must have a price: about $10 million USD, according to the EPA. The sacred quality of life that persisted in earlier epochs—where each individual was considered beyond price as a unique subject of God’s love—is replaced by an era where atomized individuals have a carefully calculated relative value, which can be traded off against other values. As this logic gradually permeates all areas of the lifeworld, we see even religious beliefs for which people live and died given an instrumental worth related to health and good-functioning in society.
Conclusion: An Ongoing Project
Our ambition is for our book to be a jumping off point for a more robust discussion on Peterson and the political right generally. With that in mind the authors have also prepared a website run by our online manager Greg Talion, which is taking submissions for articles discussing and criticizing any element of Peterson’s thought from a Left perspective. Anyone interested in making a contribution is welcome to submit to us from any theoretical background. We are also very open to submissions defending Peterson provided they are written in a spirit of dialogue and debate. With that said, we are especially interested in essays criticizing Peterson from a feminist, critical race, queer-theoretical, and socialist perspective. The website should supplement Myth and Mayhem by providing an ongoing intellectual resource for activists and intellectuals eager to push against Petersonian arguments—or other positions staked out by the Right. These resources are vital in a reactionary era. This is all the more the case—when for the first time in decades—there is a serious opportunity to win the battle of ideas along with political power ala the election of a Democratic Socialist candidate to the White House.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof