“The authors have done well in providing the substance for a critique of Jordan Peterson, but they need someone to spice up their style, which is precisely what Jordan Peterson, himself, did in his own career.”
fter Jim Poser’s Savage Messiah: How Jordan Peterson is Saving Western Civilization (a ridiculously laudatory portrayal of Jordan Peterson), some critical engagement with Peterson’s ideas is urgently needed. (See my review of Proser’s book here.) Authors Ben Burgis, Conrad Hamilton, Matthew McManus, and Marion Trejo provide just that with Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson.
They acknowledge Peterson has some interesting things to say, but they are quick to raise objections. Unfortunately, the book amounts to a long collection of disagreements with Peterson, sometimes in dry academic style. That is simply no match for Poser’s engaging prose, who knows very well how to hook readers to the lives of saints, just as Medieval hagiographists did. The authors of Myth and Mayhem are preaching to the converted; it is unlikely that they will be able to persuade the disgruntled young men, who are so fascinated by Peterson to think more critically about their guru’s claims. This is simply because halfway through the book, these readers will likely become bored.
The authors have done well in providing the substance for a critique of Jordan Peterson, but they need someone to spice up their style, which is precisely what Jordan Peterson, himself, did in his own career. Peterson had written academic books, and few people took notice; he then changed his style to resemble more the self-help gurus and, bang!, the professor morphed into a rock star. Like it or not, if the authors of Myth and Mayhem want their message to be heard, they have to play this game.
Be that as it may, the authors do sensibly point out some of the problems with Peterson’s claims. However, in doing so, sometimes they have problems of their own. Consider McManus’ criticism of Peterson’s views on lobsters. As most readers will know by now, Peterson is very enthusiastic about these creatures’ social hierarchies. McManus makes the obvious point that lobsters are not exactly close to humans in terms of evolutionary history, so why are they relevant to understand human nature? If anything, I might add, comparisons should be made with bonobos or chimpanzees (species that, as it turns out, are far more egalitarian than crustaceans).
So, while Peterson may be off in many of his critiques of the Left, he is onto something when he worries about Antifa and similar agitators.
But, in his critique of Peterson on this point, McManus goes out of his way to claim that the Left is not as radically egalitarian as Peterson thinks. In McManus’ words, “despite Peterson’s denunciation of figures who blame all dominance hierarchies on culture and politics…no one I am familiar with has ever blamed all dominance hierarchies on culture and politics. This includes even the most egalitarian thinkers on the Left.” Well, Rousseau certainly comes to mind. Yes, he acknowledged there were natural inequalities, but he believed they were inconsequential because they were not truly based on dominance. For Rousseau, all dominance hierarchies could indeed be blamed on culture and politics, as in his famous quotation, “the first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” We should come to terms with the fact that, after the Soviet collapse, Rousseau and his naïveté are becoming more influential than Marx’s more rational approach. So, while Peterson may be off in many of his critiques of the Left, he is onto something when he worries about Antifa and similar agitators. After all, these radicals owe more to Rousseau and utopian socialists, than to Marx’s more down-to-Earth views.
Yet, MacManus leaves out a far more relevant passage in that particular text, further discussing equality.
The authors are concerned that Peterson makes a big strawman out of the Left. So, throughout much of this book, there is a great effort to deradicalize Marx and other leftist authors. The authors of Myth and Mayhem are effective enough in setting the record straight and correcting some of Peterson’s distortions regarding Marx. As such, Conrad Hamilton is quick to remind readers that Marx did not think that all hierarchical structures are due to capitalism; he did acknowledge the existence of nature; he did not see History as a simplistic class struggle; he did not assume all good was on the side of the proletariat and all evil is on the side of capitalists.
These are good clarifications, but the arguments do come across as sugarcoating Marx. It seems as if the authors are embarrassed by Marx’s more radical sayings, so they go to great lengths in order to make Marx appear less extreme. For example, McManus invokes Slavoj Žižek, who writes:
“Marx mostly mentions ‘equality’ only to make the point that it is an exclusively political notion, and, as a political value, that it is a distinctively bourgeois value. Far from being a value that can be used to thwart class oppression, Marx thinks the idea of equality is actually a vehicle for bourgeois class oppression, and something quite distinct from the communist goal of the abolition of classes. Marx even makes the standard argument that equal right ‘can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only.’”
Yet, neither McManus nor Žižek tell us where that quotation comes from. However, I looked it up, and it comes from Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program. Yet, they leave out a far more relevant passage in that particular text, further discussing equality:
“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”
This is undiluted Marxism, and it is radical in the extreme. It goes beyond equality of outcome (equal pay for everyone). It advances wealth distribution—not on the basis of effort or contribution—but on the basis of need. As the Soviet Union and every single communist country (including my own, Venezuela) has learned the hard way, this is a recipe for disaster, inasmuch as it takes away any incentive to work: If you get paid according to your need (and not according to your own efforts or qualifications), there is no point in going the extra mile. Everyone sits at home waiting for the paycheck to come to satisfy their needs, until there are no more paychecks to be delivered.
So, McManus quotes Marx from this 1875 text, as if to prove that Marx is not the radical egalitarian that Peterson makes him to be. However, in fact, Marx’s views are so extreme that they even go beyond equality of outcome and embrace the removal of any distinction between mental and physical labor. It goes to the point of arguing that if the factory worker has more children than the manager, the former should earn more than the latter, simply because wealth should be allocated on the basis of need, not merit.
Despite these shortcomings, Myth and Mayhem is a valuable book, and the authors are to be commended for deeply engaging with Peterson’s work. Yet, I am afraid that, ultimately, this book will be a further confirmation of the well-known maxim, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” Perhaps because the authors have chosen not to write in a more engaging style, this book will only serve the purpose of giving Peterson even more publicity. I worry that it will not reach those who need to read it most: youngsters who have been satisfied with Peterson’s self-help sound bites but who are not aware that Peterson’s views have problems of their own.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. His twitter is @gandrade80
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the quotation that is the eighth paragraph to Matt McManus when, in fact, it comes from Slavoj Žižek’s 2020 book A Left that Dares to Speak Its Name: 34 Untimely Interventions.