“It is instead Hayekian liberalism delivered with a Calvinist grimness.”
“ ordan Peterson recently recordedA Conservative Manifesto,” to lay out what he views as a viable political philosophy for, one surmises, the American right. One has to surmise this because the manifesto is completely lacking in the socio-cultural and political-economic specificity integral to conservatism up to the mid-20th century. This tendency is on full display in Peterson’s attempt at a philosophical framework. The result is a grab-bag so mixed that neither Russell Kirk nor the elegist of Canadian Toryism, George P. Grant, would recognize it as conservative. It is instead Hayekian liberalism delivered with a Calvinist grimness.
Given this essay’s contention is that Peterson’s vision is not conservative, what is a conservative worldview? For Yoram Hazony, conservatism “refers to a standpoint that regards the recovery, restoration, elaboration, and repair of national and religious traditions as the key to maintaining a nation and strengthening it through time.” Conservatism is the effort to receive and maintain an inherited way of life. As Paul Gottfried has said, the Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim saw conservatism as “the fashioning of a worldview relating to an existing social situation.”
Thinkers such as Edmund Burke, his continental contemporaries, and their descendants into the early 20th century were defending a particular way of life under attack from various forms of revolutionary rationalism. Those who participated in this conservative “way of thinking” wrote and spoke in favor of social hierarchies and “took aim at the materialist scientific approach to government and to economics embodied by the rising bourgeoisie.” Abstract, universalist propositions divorced from the historical and cultural context of the society in question were, at best, useless and, at worst, dangerous. Any moral universality could only be apprehended and attained through the particularity of historical circumstance.
Attendant on this was attachment to a particular social base that conservative thinkers and politicians identified with, entering into a dialectic, each shaping the other. This changed with the evolution of European society from that of aristocratic estates, to social classes, to the masses, at which point the old conservatism mostly withered before the mass ideologies of Left and Right.
A successful example of the conservatism described by Mannheim was Benjamin Disraeli, who defended those further down the social ladder while remaining loyal to the romantic aristocratic vision of his Young England days. This kind of British national conservatism survived and thrived in varying forms well into the 20th century when it was buried by Thatcherite neoliberalism. This approach found similar expression across Europe with fluctuating success. Given that elites in politics and the philosophical endeavor are inevitable, it proves all the more powerful when these are joined to a constituency: The 20th-century American conservative movement never achieved this, while in Britain various strands did, and continued to do so as seen in the 2019 general election victory.
The conservative worldview did not completely disappear with the advance of industrialism and the social changes it entailed. As Gottfried writes, Mannheim argued that:
“the classical conservatives [were] forerunners of later attempts to explain individual behavior, through social and historical particularities. He credited these conservatives with the recognition that there is a group consciousness that transcends and shapes the individual. And he noticed how throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the European bourgeoisie moved away from the atomistic rationalism and the abstract way of framing moral questions, an approach that had once been its tradition, toward a more organic and historically-based understanding of morals and behavior. The conservative intellectual crusade, whether it marched under the banner of ‘Mind,’ ‘History,’ or ‘Life’ was effectively a struggle waged against ‘mere rationalism.’ For as long as battles for supremacy among competing ideas lasted, both rationalism and its rival would show up, as Mannheim states, in ‘philosophical systems that were nurtured and brought together by standpoints extending back to the political polarities between liberal and conservative world aspirations.'”
Given this focus on cultural, national, and historical specificity, let us consider the giant of Canadian Toryism, George P. Grant. As Grant wrote in his seminal 1965 work Lament for a Nation, the English colonists and settlers, combined with the American Tory loyalists who fled revolutionary America “were Anglicans and knew well that in opposing the revolution they were opposing Locke. They appealed to the older political philosophy of Richard Hooker.” In contrast to an intrinsically American liberal social and political order invested in individual autonomy and self-interest, Grant argued that Canadian “traditional conservatism…asserts the right of the community to restrain freedom in the name of the common good.”
Channeling Eric Voegelin, Grant argued that “A society only articulates itself as a nation through some common intention among its people,” from what the culture, based on commonly-held conceptions of the good, true and beautiful, holds to be of value and the end toward which social life should be oriented. The result of this common intention among English settlers and American Tories was that there “was an inchoate desire to build, in these cold and forbidding regions, a society with a greater sense of order and restraint than freedom-loving republicanism would allow. It was no better defined than a kind of suspicion that we in Canada could be less lawless and have a greater sense of propriety than the United States.”
In the traditional Canadian Toryism that reached back to Richard Hooker, the social good was primary and the individual’s liberty secondary. As Grant argued, “The early leaders of British North America identified lack of public and personal restraint with the democratic Republic. Their conservatism was essentially the social doctrine that public order and tradition, in contrast to freedom and experiment, were central to the good life. The British Crown was a symbol of a continuing loyalty to the state—less equivocal than was expected from republicans. In our early expansions, this conservative nationalism expressed itself in the use of public control in the political and economic spheres.”
As we will see, Peterson’s brand of conservatism reflects almost none of these aspects of the conservative worldview, generally defined by Mannheim as “concreteness, particularity, vitalism, hierarchy, historicity, and collective consciousness,” nor in the specific context delineated by Grant, what Hazony has called the Anglo-American tradition. Instead, we have vague handwaving at “values” and “eternal verities,” stripped of all particularity and, hence, lacking applicability.
Peterson begins by outlining the underlying crisis, as he sees it. According to him, the West is experiencing a “profound crisis of meaning” that “afflicts, destabilizes and demoralizes the sovereign citizens of the West, and the social institutions upon which we depend.” This has spread out to the rest of the world, producing a “counterproductive discord” between the West and the wider world, now no longer content for what it views as a declining West to tell it what to do (and how to live).
Peterson details four reasons for this crisis: first, a deep doubt about “the value of the principles of value, aim and action that have heretofore inspired, guided and stabilized us”; second, our ignorance of the metaphysical source of these principles and our resultant inability to justify them; third, that the will to power and nothing else motivates our “individual perceptions and actions, and gives rise to and maintain all social institutions”; finally, the exploitation of the frustration and resentment arising from doubt by divisive ideologies imbued with certainty that give rise to various battles over identitarian issues: race, sex, gender, and the associated environmental activism.
What can conservatism offer in the face of what Peterson sees as such a floodtide of resentful nihilism? For him, “not the harsh and condemnatory exhortation or demand to accept and uphold a moral code noteworthy only for its joylessness, sterility, and tendency to forbid and damn; instead, to the confident and forthright transmission of the abandoned eternal verities, to all of those who currently wander, thirst, and starve in their absence.” This is all very worthy, but it is completely lacking in relation to concrete circumstance, which is where we, as creaturely beings constrained by our existential finitude and historical existence, act out these “verities.”
Further complicating matters, Peterson employs a dense, academic, and wordy form of expression to put forward his arguments, which is ironic given his own strong criticisms of post-modern thinkers for doing the same. One of the hallmarks of a serious philosopher is his ability to express his ideas clearly: Aristotle did this, as did Thomas Aquinas. More recently, Leo Strauss, for all of his philosophical faults, was a clear and lucid writer. Roger Scruton and Yoram Hazony have similarly written in ways that are a joy to read. Complexity does not automatically mean sophistication. Sometimes, it just signifies confusion, as demonstrated by Peterson’s conservative principles.
To simplify grossly the highest goods of each main political philosophy, liberalism values liberty above all else; socialism values equality; and conservatism values order.
What are these principles? Peterson lists them at the beginning of the video as humility, liberty, autonomy, truth, agency, identity, merit, responsibility, community, stewardship, justice, tradition, and unity. Two ancillary values left for part two are the “inevitability of economic inequality” and “the practical realities of the individual competence.” Before considering the principles in detail, there is already a problem: the way they are ordered. For a conservative, the order should almost be reversed. One might suggest this order instead: tradition, community, humility, truth, identity, unity, stewardship, responsibility, justice, agency, merit, liberty, and autonomy. That the values are given in the order they are betrays the underlying classical liberalism of Peterson’s worldview.
To simplify grossly the highest goods of each main political philosophy, liberalism values liberty above all else; socialism values equality; and conservatism values order. The conservative view is that without order, liberty is impossible, as anarchy is its own form of tyranny. Furthermore, liberty without order becomes libertinism, imprisoning individuals and entire communities in the grips of vice. To be fair, Peterson does repeatedly emphasize this particular danger of unbounded liberty, but his emphasis on his primary virtues undermines this warning. For Peterson, true liberty is not individual libertinism, which ignores duty to others in favor of self-gratification.
This is all well and conservative, but Peterson also states that liberty allows free people to confront future potentialities, by engaging in social interactions guided by an invisible hand, all of which increase social productiveness and happiness. Liberty further allows unconstrained thinking and the imagination of new possibilities for our improvement, by allowing us to choose between diverse courses of action. This is not conservatism but Hayekian liberalism, as it does not admit the possibility that, as Sohrab Ahmari argues in his chapter against thinking for oneself in The Unbroken Thread, there might be goods that require external sources of social order and authority to be apprehended and attained. Our social, cultural, and spiritual context points us toward the higher things, and it is often the case that our individual freedom of thought undermines this and indeed ends up trapping us in a prison created by our own abstractions.
We see this again in Peterson’s prescription for the necessity of truth, which he claims is the only way to conceptualize unpredictable problems and discriminate between solutions for the most productive outcomes. For Peterson, free thought and speech are, therefore, crucial. Truth is never fully apprehended in facts or knowledge of doctrine—i.e., ideology—and the striving that arises from this toward our higher ethical self is the greatest manifestation and enabler of truth. For Peterson, “truth is a process, not a state.” As ever, Peterson’s inability to commit to the basic truth of God means that his commitment to objective truth is made much more difficult, as is his arguing against post-modern relativism. The fact that truth might coincide with some ultimate conception of the good, understood if only partially through specific religious practices and philosophical and cultural traditions, is passed over in silence.
This Hayekian vein continues when Peterson praises autonomy as a central conservative insight. Peterson argues that unpredictable problems require unpredictable solutions, which need widely dispersed productive endeavors and enterprises. Maximal autonomy enables this through widely distributed advancement of individual skills. Autonomous individuals and institutions mean resilience in the face of circumstances and maximal production of prosperity. Free markets are therefore the best way to achieve this. This is almost entirely a distillation of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty, delivered in Petersonese for the YouTube generation.
Peterson’s remarks on agency also reinforce this fundamental liberalism, when he calls us to contrast the sovereignty of the individual with the identity politics of immutable characteristics as a counter ethical stance. For him, agency is an example of the good expressed through voluntary cooperation and the spontaneous formation of relationships and striving toward life’s good things in the face of anti-human ideologies. This all undergirds our individual psychological and social stability. Again, the fact that we gain our agency through the development of a sense of self in a dialectic with our membership of family, community and nation is not mentioned.
In his points concerning the importance of merit, Peterson reinforces this message with unabashed praise for meritocracy, reprising his use of the Pareto distribution regarding talent and productivity, whereby 20% of people are responsible for 80% of total productivity. The best people should be promoted and celebrated for the good of the individual in question, along with the good of the whole. For Peterson, merit means the ability to do work and achieve goals set by society and its value-set, in the “free marketplace” of social and economic activity. Merit is the primary criterion for social and economic advancement.
This view ties in with his comments on justice, which Peterson sees as the “Rewarding of productive and generous ability.” Striving in righteous ways deserves benefits attendant on striving. For him, justice is that which “fosters and maintains that productive generosity at the individual and social level.” This true justice is set against universal, “too forgiving, and infantilizing” compassion that demands recognition “as moral virtue itself.” Justice grounded in the traditions of forebears must be applied equally, regardless of status or circumstance. But again, who these forebears might be (and what their view of justice might entail) is not considered.
In this unrestrained praise for meritocracy and the view of justice that undergirds it, Peterson ignores the critique leveled by Christopher Lasch, who wrote that “[meritocracy] drains talent away from the lower classes and thus deprives them of effective leadership.” This strip-mining of the most talented from their place of birth and home has meant that the managerial-state Leviathan filled its ranks with those who could have formed a countervailing power to its own power. As a result, “it also ripped from Americans the possibility of self-government and replaced it with government by expertise.”
By contrast, Peterson’s statement of the importance of humility signal toward this understanding of conservatism, when he argues in favor of a Burkean epistemic humility in the face of all-encompassing ideological formulas, as well as for a skepticism of the capacity of individual rationality, and that we should instead rely on inherited mores and norms to navigate new circumstances. An engagement with the world with open curiosity rather than closed certainty is needed. But this is all undercut by following liberal principles and foundational liberal framing.
We see this play out in the more explicitly conservative section. Something as conservative as identity, the sense of the “we,” the “first person plural” that binds us together, is reduced to a set of scientistic bromides. Whether on questions of identity, community, responsibility, tradition, or unity, Peterson returns again and again to the idea of the “sovereign citizen” and the “sovereign individual,” an idea classically liberal in origin and often libertarian in expression. Peterson sees identity as a negotiated agreement between the individual and society, at every level of the society in question (which society?). Peterson’s conservatism apparently sees sovereign citizenship as the most meaningful identity. The individual as member of a community and culture, as the inheritor of a legacy and shared way of life is seemingly not relevant. Sovereign citizenship produces the best individuals, spouses, parents, businesspeople, and the rest. Our political nature, in the Aristotelean sense, of civic membership and political action, is relegated to last.
Further to this point, Peterson claims in the community section that the Western inheritance stems from the confluence of Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem, producing the belief in the sacrosanct individual. The “Liberal West” means “individual rights grounded in natural law.” According to Peterson, conservatives can insist that the “highest must serve the lowest, communally, in a truly religious sense.” But whether communities cultivate and shape the individual is again undiscussed. Grant would shake his head in bemusement at the labeling of this form of liberal individualism as conservative.
This is reflected in Peterson’s attempt at arguing for the good of tradition. He begins by stating that the “fundamental institutions of the West are solid, philosophically and practically.” Fine, but which institutions, and which bits of the West? He then says that equality before the law and individuals of “divine intrinsic worth” undergird sovereign citizens. Saying someone is of “divine intrinsic worth” and “made in the image and likeness of God” are two different propositions: the former is Gnostic, the latter Biblical. This confusion is matched by blurriness when Peterson says that the “Abrahamic canon bequeathed to us by our forebears” provides the foundation for free speech, laws, marriage, and free markets as the best mitigation of inequality and cause of productivity.
This fundamentally individualist perspective is matched by the fact that in so much of even the more conservative points that Peterson lays out, he reduces why these values are good to their positive psychological impact, which is perhaps understandable but is emblematic of a mechanistic view of the world rooted in the Enlightenment that brooks no belief in intrinsic value. An example is that he says that sanity is continually negotiated through community, and that “purely individual ethos is shallow, unsustainable, unworthy, and fragile.” An individualist ethos lacks an orientation for a direction of action that imbues hope.
This mechanistic frame also explains Peterson’s repeated references to “productivity” as the salve to psychological instability and the key to maintaining individual and collective harmony. The legacy of the Western tradition led to a kind of freedom that enables productivity. Whether it led to a good life measured against criteria other than utilitarian production and consumption is apparently neither here nor there. The implication of this is that people are reduced to production engines, meat-sacks at the mercy of their neural-circuits which must be placated by utilitarian means. The idea of the higher ethical life as a good in itself, and the psychological and physiological benefits as a consequence rather than an end, is consistently underplayed.
The Impossibility of Peterson’s “Conservatism”
I wrote that Grant would be bemused at this kind of supposed conservatism, but he would not have been surprised. After all, Lament for a Nation was an elegy for the Canadian nationalism of his youth, gradually supplanted by an American liberal worldview. For Grant, the source of our present discontent stems from the modernity in which we now live, where the word “‘modern’ [is used] to describe the civilization of the age of progress. This civilization arose in Western Europe and is now conquering the whole globe and perhaps other parts of the universe.” This birthed a way of seeing the world and our place in it that views “the universal and homogeneous state [as] the pinnacle of political striving.”
As a result, the “conservatism” that Peterson proffers is nothing more than “progressivism driving the speed-limit,” determined to defend whatever the current social and political order happens to be.
This worldview has been agreed to “by the masses and the philosophers.” As Grant wrote with alarming prescience in 1965, “this state will be achieved by means of modern science—a science that leads to the conquest of nature. Today, scientists master not only non-human nature, but human nature itself. Particularly in America, scientists concern themselves with the control of heredity, the human mind, and society. Their victories in biochemistry and psychology will give the politicians a prodigious power to universalize and homogenize…Man will conquer man and perfect himself.”
In writing that “modern civilization makes all local cultures anachronistic. Where modern science has achieved its mastery, there is no place for local cultures,” Grant echoes Marx’s praise of the liquifying effect of modern technological capitalism, where “all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned” and presaged by nearly 30 years what David Rieff wrote in 1993, paraphrased as “capitalism and leftist ideologies like multiculturalism go perfectly well together.” Culture and traditions are commodified and relativized in service to being bought and sold in the global marketplace.
Peterson’s consistent downplaying (or ignoring) of the question of man’s end and society’s highest good shows how indebted he is to what Grant sees as the modern mindset. While Peterson would deny this and point to the limits on personal liberation as evidence of his conservatism, the repeated emphasis on individual liberty, autonomy, and productivity betrays the deepest presuppositions undergirding his arguments, which are inescapably modern. For Grant, “It is the very signature of modern man to deny reality to any conception of good that imposes limits on human freedom. To modern political theory, man’s essence is his freedom. Nothing must stand in the way of our absolute freedom to create the world as we want it. There must be no conceptions of good that put limitations on human action.” The fact that Peterson consistently emphasizes material progress as moral elevation signifies that “This definition of man as freedom constitutes the heart of the age of progress. The doctrine of progress is not, as Marx believed, the perfectibility of man, but an open-ended progression in which men will be endlessly free to make the world as they want it.”
Peterson’s manifesto also reflects the tendency of the mid-20th century’s American conservative movement to an abstraction rooted in their public liberalism. As I have written before, Patrick Deneen argued that under the purview of William F. Buckley Jr, Frank Meyer, and company, “The Founding…[became] largely reducible to a set of philosophical ideas whose most distinct appeal lies in their liberal grounding as timeless and placeless principles. America was cast as an idea, a theory. Like the state of nature of the liberal philosophers who were of particular interest…the Founding came to be understood as a set of principles that transcended place and history and which were advanced as self-evident and universal.” This “highly theoretical, philosophical, and even ideological explanation of what America is” arose both in reaction to the United States’ new superpower status, as well as to Communism abroad and Progressivism at home, where “the American project was necessarily conceived as a competitor universalist set of ideas that were ahistorical and de-linked from any geographic place and particular set of cultural or historical conditions.”
For Grant, this public liberalism and the divorce between fact and value that he, influenced by Leo Strauss, saw as inherent to it, meant that “the vaunted freedom of the individual to choose becomes either the necessity of finding one’s role in the public engineering or the necessity of retreating into the privacy of pleasure.” The public liberalism of the 20th-century American conservative movement surrendered the public space to those liberal in public and private, which through the instrument of the state thereby put the private conservatism of the Conservatism Inc crowd on the permanent defensive and forced an incessant retreat.
Losing beautifully became the mark of the principled conservative, lamenting one liberal triumph after another in flowery speeches and eloquent books, all of which had the happy result of hoovering up ever larger amounts of donor dollars from funds and foundations only too happy for this new order to entrench itself for their own benefit and at the expense of those the movement claimed to speak and stand for. As Grant bitingly wrote, “Liberalism is the fitting ideology for a society directed toward these ends. It denies unequivocally that there are any given restraints that might hinder pursuit of dynamic dominance. In political terms, liberalism is now an appeal for ‘the end of ideology.’ This means that we must experiment in shaping society unhindered by any preconceived notions of good. ‘The end of ideology’ is the perfect slogan for men who want to do what they want.”
The hedonism that undermines the foundations of psychological and, thus, social stability is intrinsic to the progressive view of man, rooted in modernity and expressed in the liberalism that Peterson espouses as “conservatism.” For Grant, “implied in the progressive idea of freedom is the belief that men should emancipate their passions. When men are free to do what they want, all will be well because the liberated desires will be socially creative. This belief lies at the very centre of liberal movements.”
The devotion Peterson displays to the almost-unfettered free market is perfectly consonant with this liberationist view, and dissolves the social, cultural and even the metaphysical structures that he praises for the psychological stability they engender. As Grant argued, “Those who accepted such a doctrine [of emancipation] found corporation capitalism was a much more suitable régime than the inhibiting policies of socialism…Early capitalism was full of moral restraints. The Protestant ethic inhibited any passion that did not encourage acquisition. The greed of each would lead to the greatest good for all. But in the age of high technology, the new capitalism can allow all passions to flourish along with greed.” As a result, “the titillation of the jaded tastes of the masses serves the purpose of the corporation élites, so long as a sufficient quota of the young is siphoned off as scientists and executives.”
Peterson’s unwillingness to countenance the conservative lifeworld as articulated by Mannheim, or expressed by Hazony, and his overemphasis on the lone individual primary to his or her social and cultural context, means that he largely ignores the sociological, cultural, and economic inevitability of the formation of elites, as well as their need for what Gaetano Mosca called a “political formula” to justify their rule and entrench their power through the networks and institutions that comprise the ruling class. In the age of modernity and its focus on progress as the open-ended telos of human life, so open that it is really no ultimate end at all, Grant saw that “liberal ideology reconciles the political power of the élites with the private satisfactions of the masses. State capitalism and liberalism are much more advanced manifestations of the age of progress than the Russian system with its official Marxism,” or as one might say today, those damned “post-modern neo-Marxists” that Peterson is always so banging on about.
Peterson is an ideological descendent of “the Americans who call themselves ‘Conservatives’” who are “in fact…old-fashioned liberals. They stand for the freedom of the individual to use his property as he wishes, and for a limited government which must keep out of the marketplace. Their concentration on freedom from governmental interference has more to do with nineteenth-century liberalism than with traditional conservatism.” The absorbing by Peterson of an American conservative fusionism updated for the digital era is testament to the fact of “the impossibility of conservatism as a viable political ideology in our era. The practical men who call themselves conservatives must commit themselves to a science that leads to the conquest of nature. This science produces such a dynamic society that it is impossible to conserve anything for long. In such an environment, all institutions and standards are constantly changing. Conservatives who attempt to be practical face a dilemma. If they are not committed to a dynamic technology, they cannot hope to make any popular appeal. If they are so committed, they cannot hope to be conservatives.”
As a result, the “conservatism” that Peterson proffers is nothing more than “progressivism driving the speed-limit,” determined to defend whatever the current social and political order happens to be. This is not conservatism understood in the existential sense of trying to preserve and restore a shared way of life. It is a philosophy subordinate to, and enabling of, the continued turning by technology of what Alex Kaschuta calls the intangible commons of human life into what philosopher Martin Heidegger called the “standing reserve,” when “everything is imposed upon or ‘challenged’ to be an orderly resource for technical application.”
Peterson’s conservatism is impossible, both because it is not conservative, and because it cannot conserve the hollow vision at its heart, forever at the mercy of the riptides of progress and its liberal legitimator delivered through the instrument of technology. Peterson’s conservative vision is testament to the truth of Grant’s thesis: that Canadian national conservatism is dead and is forever at risk of being only the shadow of the ghost of American conservatism. Those looking for answers to our present condition will not find them here.
Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review.