Peterson vs Žižek: My Review of the Debate
Well, I did a foolish thing last night. My sister had come over, and instead of drinking wine and watching backlogged episodes of The Good Fight with her (which is what we like to do together), I was sucked into the Internet world of pop-intelligentsia, falling for the Barnum-esque spectacle that was the “debate” between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek. Billed as the “debate of the century”, it was supposed to answer the question of which system is better for human happiness, Capitalism or Marxism.
I foolishly promised some people on Twitter that if I paid my $15 to watch the event’s live stream, I would then write a review. Well, I paid the money and watched the stream. So now I guess I have to write something. So that’s what this is.
Now, before I continue, I want to make something clear. I realize that both debaters attract legions of followers and detractors. Many of my own readers my be tempted to comment here in disparaging tones about the personal qualities of these men. Please don’t. Save that nonsense for Twitter or Facebook. If you have a qualitative comment about the debate itself, or an objection to something I have written herein, have at it. But I have no stomach for petty name-calling on my own website. Thanks.
In preparation for this “debate”, I viewed hours of online lectures and interviews by both Peterson and Žižek. So I am quite familiar with the public profiles of both.
If you don’t know who the participants are, here’s a very brief primer. Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor and psychologist, has risen to fame as an enemy of political correctness and what he calls “postmodern neo-Marxism”, particularly in universities. He calls himself a disciple of Jung. I would characterize him as conservative in most ways, classically liberal in others. There are readers who I’m sure will insist that he is an alt-right white nationalist. But I have not seen evidence to support that characterization. Please don’t spam my comments section with disagreements about my summary of Peterson’s slant. Again, save that for Twitter.
Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and self-proclaimed Marxist. He’s very popular in Europe and seems to pop up in various news programs and debate shows, largely unchallenged. I’m told by friends in the social sciences that many “serious” academics don’t take him seriously. Mind you, they say the same of Peterson. (And they probably say the same about me, too.) So who knows the truth? Both men are tenured professors. To me, that’s serious enough. I would characterize Žižek as a leftist liberal, but not an intersectional progressive. He calls himself a disciple of Hegel.
Both men are opposed to the victimhood mentality that infects modern current discourse. Peterson famously claims that the purpose of life is to seek meaning, not happiness, and that to fix the world one must first fix oneself. Zizek has, in various interviews, echoed very similar sentiments. Both men blame the rise of white nationalism and Donald Trump on the oversteps of the radical Left.
So there is, in fact, every expectation that there would be more agreement than disagreement. However, the debate question to be resolved concerns happiness, something that is not fundamental to either man’s fame or standard talking points.
Act I The Beginning
It is a strange and unfriendly format. First, Peterson speaks for 30 minutes, then Žižek does the same. Then each man responds to the other for 10 minutes each. Then there follows a more free-flowing exchange. There is moderator present: Stephen Blackwood, the founder of a non-existent college. So that’s an additional source of weirdness. Make of it what you will.
Scene (i) – Peterson
Peterson begins with a criticism of…. wait for it…. The Communist Manifesto.
What? Why not Das Kapital? It’s a strange choice. To me, Das Kapital is more the fundamental text underpinning Marx’s criticisms of capitalism and establishing the foundations of Marxism as an economic theory. But okay. My personal understanding of this stuff is barely an undergraduate level.
He wanders around topics with no particularly obvious connecting thread. No obvious point is being made. This is when I tweet that Peterson’s preparation for this debate seems to have consisted of (1) reading the Wikipedia page on Marxism, and (2) re-watching all of his own lectures.
Finally, Peterson makes something resembling an argument, that in Marxism the claim that the dictatorship of the proletariat is somehow a preferable state of affairs is unsupported by historical evidence. If one eliminates the bourgeois, why does Marxism assume that the proletariat will magically create sufficient wealth to meet all of this Utopian society’s needs? He essentially argues that central planning is an organizational concern, whereas Marxism reduces economics to a set of moral claims without concern for the pragmatism of implementation. I’m greatly paraphrasing, of course, and hope I’m not putting words into his mouth.
Of course, he then speaks of hierarchies, which is one of his favourite topics. The holy lobster is invoked, to much laughter and online derision. What I think and hope he is saying is that an economic system must value competent management within its hierarchies, but that Marxism sees no role or value in cultivating management competency, and instead assumes that a magical functionality will emerge spontaneously from a horizontal system. (Again, my words, not his.)
He then says that profit has intrinsic value as a force of discipline and therefore as an incentive for deeper organizational acumen and competence. He does not say it, but I assume he takes exception to the Marxist conception of profit as excess or surplus value.
Peterson then ends with the argument with which I think he should have started, that capitalism has pulled more people out of poverty in the last couple of decades than any other economic system has in the history of the world. To the extent that material wealth plays a part in achieving happiness, he says, then capitalism is best positioned to provide that material wealth. He concedes that material wealth is insufficient to create such happiness, but is likely a mostly necessary causal factor.
Overall, Peterson’s opening is disorganized and weak, with only a couple of actual arguments. As one viewer tweets, “Peterson seemed like he came prepared to lambast a wokescold caricature and was at a loss for how to deal with a dirtbag leftist edgelord. Dude needs to take his own advice and get out of his echo chamber more often. And maybe have a salad.”
Scence (ii) – Žižek
Žižek pulls out a sheaf of papers and reads aloud for 30 minutes. This angers me to no end. I despise it when academics read their positions. You could have just emailed your script and saved us all the hassle of listening your weird voice!
Speaking of his voice and mannerisms, my first reaction is that Žižek gestures like he’s a 3rd base coach, and lisps like he’s trying to steal a ring from some filthy Hobbitses. He also looks like a crazy homeless man. I think I love him.
Since his opening is prepared, he responds to none of what Peterson has just said. Instead, he presents about 650 random and seemingly unrelated thoughts, much of it seemingly unconnected, but almost all of it somewhat intriguing.
He goes on about Donald Trump for reasons I’m not smart enough to understand. Is Donald Trump the Messiah of capitalism? He speaks of the standard liberal line that “an enemy is a person whose story we haven’t heard”, sneering sarcastically that it implies that if we only understood Hitler’s story, we would not see him as evil. I’m not sure what this has to do with unhappiness and capitalism. I feel dumb.
He segues by saying that “Marxism is the scapegoat for social tensions in exactly the way same anti-semitism was for Germany.” I guess this was meant as a response to an argument that he assumed Peterson would offer, that people are unhappy because what Peterson sees as “postmodern neo-Marxism” is goading victimhood culture.
He develops this further by insisting that, “far from pushing us too far, the Left is losing its ground.” The Left’s trademarks, like universal healthcare, are being diminished, not expanded upon. Bernie Sanders is considered radical today, he says, but a few decades ago would have been a mainstream voice.
Žižek then speaks of immigration, which is where he brings us back to Donald Trump. The unhappiness that Trump’s constructed immigration crisis has caused could have been avoided if we had focused on solving the problems that compelled people to emigrate: providing them dignity, safety and wealth. (I’m heavily paraphrasing again.)
Žižek seems mostly energized about the potential to construct a kind of “egalitarianism” that is not centred on the bourgeois, but rather one that optimizes opportunity for a maximum number of people, whereas capitalism by design pools resources into the hands of a few.
I feel that Žižek is deliberately conflating capitalism with imperialism, which I suppose is fair, depending on the context and intent of the debate. But I wish there were more constraints placed on this debate, perhaps by first defining capitalism and Marxism, and distinguishing them as either economic or political systems. Shall we conflate capitalism with democracy, and Marxism with autocracy, then? I’m not sure. I need clarity and guidance.
My memory might be failing me, but I think at this point Žižek references Peterson’s lobster. “Nature is full of improvisations. It develops like French cuisine,” he says, implying that just because one thing is observed in the natural world, it does not necessarily follow that it will manifest in exactly the same way in human communities.
Act II – The Exchange
At this point, the two men sit down on opposite sides of the seemingly pointless moderator, and respond for ten minutes each.
I have to point out that the moderator bears a very slight resemblance to actor Ryan Gosling, and I find myself wondering if he rents himself out as an impersonator at barmitzvahs.
Scene (i) – Peterson
Peterson concedes that laissez-faire capitalism is not great. Some things don’t belong on the free market, such as culture and the environment. He spends some time lamenting the pollution and litter in the oceans. But he continues to argue that the environmental catastrophe is not as glum as many insist, pointing out that there are more forests in the Western hemisphere now than a century ago.
He develops further his insistence that insofar as material security is essential for happiness, the free market is the best option for optimizing that potential. He then invokes Judeo-Christian beliefs and the internet explodes, so I am distracted.
Scene (ii) – Žižek
This is where I start to suspect that Žižek intentionally conflates capitalism with democracy. He says that to have true happiness, you should not have “too much democracy”, because the people need “someone to blame”; an autocrat is a good person to blame. So, is he advocating for a authoritarian, Stalinistic government? Surely that can’t be right. I’m sure someone will correct my assumption in the comments section.
He rebukes Peterson’s seeming minimization of the environmental crisis, cleverly pointing out that to solve the pollution problem, particularly that of the oceans that Peterson himself conceded, the world needs the collective approach best potentiated by Marxism, implying that the incentive-disincentive game of capitalism will not get the job done.
Žižek also responds to Peterson’s best argument, that capitalism has pulled more people out of poverty. Žižek says, correctly, that this is due almost entirely to the Chinese economic miracle. And this is where he loses me because I am distracted again. He says, I think, that the Chinese success is due to the Communist party’s singular control and therefore their ability to exploit the workers. So this economic progress came at the price of suffering of the Chinese working class. I think this is what he is arguing; please correct me if I’m wrong.
Žižek concedes that Marx did not have a good theory for how social power exists, and was pointlessly obsessed with class systems, hence Peterson’s misdirected obsession with socialism’s seeming desire to flatten our hierarchies.
At this point, Žižek is touching his nose so frequently that I start to suspect that there’s a nerve connecting it to his penis.
Act III – The Free-for-All
I’m not sure how best to present this portion of the event, so bear with me as I struggle through it.
The high point for me is when Peterson comments that Žižek is a “strange Marxist”, betraying the now obvious fact that Peterson does not really have a good idea of what Marxism is. (Neither do I, for that matter; but I’m not debating Žižek.)
This leads to Žižek’s killing blow, the question he’s been waiting all night to ask his opponent: who exactly are all these “neo-Marxists” that Peterson hates so much? Now, if Plato were writing of this event as if he were describing a debate between Socrates and, say, Gorgias, this would be the moment where Peterson (Gorgias, in this example) concedes that he knows of no such neo-Marxists because none exist; because he now realizes that what he thought of as neo-Marxists were just postmodern assholes. As one person tweets, “Peterson should realize the college professors who identify as Marxists are the same people Zizek is calling left liberals.”
I don’t know how Peterson can respond knowledgeably at this point. But he surprises me by retreating to his safe space: the work of Jonathan Haidt, whom Peterson cites frequently and voluminously in his lectures. His response is clunky, something to do with how Haidt’s work confirms that conservative professors are nearly extinct on university campuses. I guess the implication is that the remainder of professors are Marxists. I don’t know if that is true, but I concede to Peterson that a fair number of the postmodern assholes he hates so much self-identify as Marxists, regardless of whether they practice actual Marxism.
Peterson then pivots by asking his opponent how he can ally himself with a “170 year old doctrine.” The implication is that capitalism has been practised for millennia, whereas Marxism is a new system with a century only of perceived large scale failures. He says that there are seductive aspects to Marxism, but more dangers, as the horrors of Maoism and Stalinish suggest (my words, not his). He says, “in rescuing the sheep, you invite the dragon into the house.”
At some point in this exchange, Žižek brings up the analogy for which he is most famous: the toilets! (You can read a summary of that story here.) I find it interesting that Peterson’s lobster thing gets mocked and booed, while Žižek’s toilet thing is applauded. They are both preposterous. A friend explains to me that Peterson is serious about the lobsters, whereas Žižek knows and accepts that his toilet comparison is nonsensical. Ah, that makes sense.
Žižek concedes, though, that the Marxist binary of the evil bourgeois vs the fundamentally oppressed proletariat is to be resisted. That ways lies tyranny. He seems less interested in defending the core concepts of Marxism than he is in critiquing capitalism, specifically in how the profit motive leads to moral dilution.
Then we get weird.
Both men start to agree a lot and in weird ways. First, they agree that Christian “grace” is an essential concept if we wish to understand happiness in the Western historical context. The Fall from Grace allows a path for redemption, and in the struggle for redemption do we find happiness. In this way, Hegel agrees with Jung, someone says.
In fact, it has long occurred to me that the Hegelian “zeitgeist” bears more than a passing similarity to Jung’s “shared unconscious.” But what do I know? My education is 72% Wikipedia-based, too.
Peterson says that the arrival of the postmodernists into the Marxism dialectic is a kind of “sleight of hand” that replaced the oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie…. and Žižek says, “I totally agree with you”.
In fact, Žižek sees this transformation as very much a non-Marxist thing, and regrets the co-option of the M-word and the subsequent popular demonization of actual Marxists. But, more importantly, Žižek agrees that the assholes that Peterson refers to as “postmodern neo-Marxists” do actually exist and that they should be resisted.
Žižek sees them more as the “left liberal” politically correct mob. They have changed the focus of the class struggle from one that uplifts the proletariat to one that empowers demographic-based victimhood. (Which is why I am comfortable calling them assholes, since I heartily agree with Žižek on this.)
I’m having flashbacks to Alan Sokal, of the famous Sokal affair, whose memorable criticism of postmodernism included the line, “I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class.”
And that seems to be Žižek’s ultimate concern, that we should not forget our responsibilities to the working class. Kudos to him. Both the profit motive and runaway identity politics distract from the needs of the proletariat and distract from actual progressive acts, like socialized health care and job security.
Act IV – My Final Thoughts
Watching this live, I sort of felt that it was a waste of time. I convinced myself that it wasn’t, as I was having a good time live tweeting snarky comments, Because that’s what dumb people do.
But a day later, I find myself thinking about some of the points the two men dissected. And that is sufficient evidence to me that that the event was a net good. So I have no regrets.
Unlike this guy.
The two men agreed on more than they disagreed. In fact, the substantive things that they disagree upon are barely noticeable. As The Guardian put it, “One hated communism. The other hated communism but thought that capitalism possessed inherent contradictions. The first one agreed that capitalism possessed inherent contradictions. And that was basically it. They both wanted the same thing: capitalism with regulation, which is what every sane person wants.”
I was disappointed that they barely spoke about happiness, which was the actual resolution question. I was disappointed that they did not achieve clarity on what capitalism and Marxism really are. I was disappointed that they did not distinguish between the two systems as political or economic, and often conflated each with either democracy, imperialism or autocracy.
If I’m honest, I came into this slightly biased toward Peterson’s position, as I do believe that well-managed capitalism has a better track record of producing wealth, health and stability than any example of practical Communism.
But if you want me to declare a winner, then I grudgingly give it to Žižek, mostly because he made the unrefuted point that the people Peterson famously chastises as “neo-Marxist” are nothing of the kind. But Žižek did not make a convincing argument that Marxism leads to happiness. In fact, Peterson came closest by almost repeating one of my own personal mantras, that money does not buy happiness, but money can remove at least one big source of unhappiness.
There is something discomforting, though, about seeing these Baby Boomer men arguing over economic/political systems as if those systems have not evolved since their founding. We do not engage in horrific Darwinist Adam Smith laissez-faire capitalism. And no rational person wants to live in any of the historic examples of Communist nations.
The economic revelation of Marx, to my mind, was the conceptualization of labour as capital. This allowed the worker to enter the conversation of power. Production used to be linear, so the control of the means of production was easily visualized. However, today information is both capital and a resource, owned and controlled by a multipolar web of agents. This old fashioned and artificial dialectic between capitalism (whatever that is) and Marxism (whatever that is) desperately needs to be updated.
Now I need to watch some professional wrestling or some other dumb shit. Leave your comments below and keep it friendly, please.