The Incoherence of the Philosophers[1]

Peterson v Žižek: Mostly Misses

Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek debated this past weekend in Toronto. Žižek took the stage looking like a frumpy dollop of unkempt gray and Peterson took the stage dressed like the son of an old midwestern bank president. As leader of the Marxist-Hegelian quixotic Christian axis of the left (party of one), Žižek appeared movie-set perfect; Žižek is not a subscriber to teleological necessities and neither is his hair. As bogeyman of some kind of conservative-populist Lake Wobegon Boy Scouts meeting, Peterson … needs to not wear a three-piece-suit. This was just not a vest occasion. It’s the equivalent of Žižek wearing an unironic Che t-shirt. Peterson was only missing a top hat and a butler.

Peterson Punts

To some degree, an interpretation and summation of Marx, like Hegel, depends on the interpreter; contrary to the aspirational certitude of his disciples, Marx often exhibits substantial ambiguity. But there are bandwidths of reasonableness outside of which the interpretation is more false than true. A core consideration of Marx, which I think is generally uncontested, is that the capitalist system incentivizes the producer-capitalist to minimize input costs (e.g. labor) and maximize price. Marx is not given to arguing that the capitalist is bad or the worker is good; rather, his premise is that the system creates an unfeasible amount of social friction that is amoral or immoral or unhelpful. A producer-capitalist will charge as much for a loaf of bread as he can find someone to pay, regardless of what it costs him to make it, and he will pay as little for labor as he can find someone to work for the wage. For Marx, such a system is socially unhelpful to the project of civilization. Marx does not substantially address equality and assumes a variety of possible inputs/outputs; his concern was not one of equality/inequality.

Of course, there are other components of Marx’s analysis (and other actors in the drama than just capitalists and workers) — and the core of it is fundamentally an urban-Victorian analysis (so Marx may seem overly concerned with this environment to those far outside of it).[2] In many ways, Marx was more realistic than many other Victorian intellectuals (e.g. Freud), and his general concern for reducing social friction and increasing social good should be appreciated for what it is, not for what it became in the hands of the buffet of psychopaths than followed. Marx was reacting to the atomized social-Darwinist world around him that preached natural selection and survival of the fittest that to many looked more like a Hobbesian dystopia than progress.[3] There was quite a parade of Darwinists — Malthus, Spencer, etc. — and a subsequent parade of proposed solutions — charities, education, insane asylums, increasing the franchise, etc. — that sought to promote opportunity and decrease the probability that someone gets ensnared in the meat grinder of Victorian capitalism.[4] Most modern solutions — of which universal basic income is another variation — are versions of these Victorian solutions that work within capitalism; in contrast, Marx offered an analysis that was directed at a reinvention of capitalism.

One issue with which Marxists must contend is the repeated and substantial failures of Marxist thought when applied, but that doesn’t preclude one from first acquiring a basic understanding of Marxist analysis and contending fairly with the portions of Marxist analysis that are correct (or reasonably accurate) — and I think a fair thinker would agree that Marx does accurately analyze much of Victorian capitalism (at least socially). That said, I think that Marxist analysis is fatally flawed (as is the analysis of subsequent Marxists such as Richard Wolff[5]) — but Peterson doesn’t seem to understand Marxism as he doesn’t substantially address the real flaws in Marxism. Peterson is of such stature that he could have called up any number of Marxist experts, had a conversation for an hour or two, and gained a much greater understanding of Marx’s analysis of capitalism. I’m not a Marx expert, but I know enough to engage it.[6] I’m not shocked by Peterson’s criticism of Marxism; I’m shocked that he really didn’t have any. He seemed to reject Marxism with a few Hallmark card summations of pseudo-Marxist thought. Sad!

That aside, Peterson does contend that Victorian oppressed/oppressor meta-narrative that assumes the moral superiority of the oppressed is a key Marxist feature that has metastasized into the foundation of modern leftist ideology. Žižek adds that the modern left glorifies oppression by glorifying the oppressed; instead of a problem to be solved it’s a condition to be leveraged — solving the condition would eliminate the socio-political leverage; thus, this metastasized glorification becomes necessary thus permanent.

And yet not through Petersonian incision but rather through confession Žižek divulges that he’s Hegelian and (not really) Marxist. It seems to me an optimal attack for Peterson at this point is on Hegel’s positioning of the State as necessary for individual fulfillment (in fact, the State is collaborator in truth and ethics). Peterson’s teleological first point as self should find a teleological end-point in the State as problematic and obnoxious. Of course Žižek would rebut by declining to admit any teleology in Hegel, whereby Peterson would argue that instead of teleological end-point the State for Hegel is ontological necessity. At that point, I’d expect fisticuffs. Instead, though, none of that happens because Peterson never moves against the State as Hegelian social necessity. (In defense of Peterson, perhaps he doesn’t make this move because it’s inconceivable that he scores Hegel points on Žižek.)

Peterson does contend that Marxism has been repackaged as identity politics.[7] Žižek seems to concede with the caveat that post-structuralism and Marxism are incompatible. But so what? Since when has logical consistently been necessary for political empowerment? Peterson contends that the primary problem is the Marxist perpetual struggle with class being replaced by identity and that the resulting friction is catastrophic. First, observation whether something is catastrophic has no relationship to whether it’s true. Second, Žižek pushes back on Peterson’s primary solution — individual/self moral/social introspection and improvement — by suggesting that false narratives can disrupt and coopt the self-realization process. But the problem is deeper: humans are transgressive animals. A dynamic (“anti-fragile” in Taleb’s nomenclature) system does not attempt to eradicate these transgressions but rather captures and transmutes. This transgression-alchemy will often fail, so the system must be one of distributed power and limited rigidity so that it doesn’t collapse or succumb to the transgressors. In many ways, though, the transgressors flourish.[8] Such a system is established through its institutions and as such provides the guardrails and signposts to assist Peterson’s self-actuation and to limit Žižek’s false narratives. There was no discussion of institutions.

Žižek: Lovely in his Cognitive Crinoline

That said, Žižek’s thinking is critically flawed — and Peterson missed another opportunity. At various times, Žižek discusses “God,” and “government” and “economies.” The problem with such analysis is that none of these things exist. They are all figments of your imagination.[9]

Well, they do exist, but only in classrooms. They are abstractions that enable us to construct further abstractions, analyze them, then develop abstract solutions. In the end, it’s all useless. There is no God. But there is a God of the Lutherans and the gods of the Hindus and gods of secularists, atheists, scientists, government bureaucrats, sports fans, etc. There are many for whom the State is their god, statist dogma is their church, and power is their religion. They have prophets and false prophets and catechism and preachers. The world is overpopulated with gods, and the similarity between those who worship the State and Scientologists is less than a Cnidarias parasite (less than 0.0004 inch long) and your grandmother, yet we don’t usually go around debating “animals,” which would include both the parasite and your grandmother.

Similarly, there are some 200 governments in the world, many of which have almost nothing in common (yes, the ability to tax, but many don’t in practice; yes, the ability to ‘lawfully’ kill, but practically this is a poor comparison as the Saudis engage in ‘lawful’ murder but the Norwegians don’t). A practical analysis of global governments would reveal that you have some parasites and some grandmas and everything in between, and yet we talk about ‘government’ as if such a term is generally applicable across the globe.

Such abstractions enable us to discuss and debate — but unless debate is the only desired outcome (and for professors, it often is), then it is lazy and useless. This homogenization of types — god, government, economy — encourages us to talk as if they exist, as if there’s a type specimen and a species and a genus. Then we launder ideas through these fictions in an attempt to create meaning. Then we hold a debate a few decades later in an attempt to ascertain what went wrong.

This coerced homogenization is precisely why Communism fails. Communism is fueled by class consciousness, with which workers of the world can unite. Of course, this is all theory, and the empirical evidence suggests that it will remain so. It seems that often that in a given community workers have more in common with the capitalists than they do with workers in another community. Of course, communism aggressively sought to alter this affiliation — destroying culture, rewriting history, enforcing consciousness on the supposed unconscious. The substantially greater failure than success catalyzes the perception of perpetual struggle (Marx never said it would be easy), though it looks to many like just another Victorian theory detached from reality (there are many) and makes Communists appear to be just more Victorian fantasists.

And so we deploy God and government and class as if these homogenizing coercions exist in order to launder theories until they appear legitimate, and then at the other extreme we deploy taxonomic weapons to label and dismiss and destroy.[10] We zombiewalk through this synthetic social construct that would befuddle Marx as much as Linnaeus and somehow forget about the core building block of civilization up until very recently — the organic community.

Žižek does observe the left’s taxonomic weaponry when he decries the left’s reflex to label those who disagree, often even in the slightest, as fascist; his observation sounds drawn from experience. He doesn’t note the irony of labeling as fascist one who does not adhere to ideological purity. More importantly, he doesn’t explore how weaponized taxonomy is a foundational cognitive weapon of the left; further, as he and Marx have observed about ideology: you just do it even when you don’t know it’s there. So Žižek and Peterson engage this weaponized taxonomy, often without being aware of it; again, that’s ideology. And such ideology is transmitted through institutions, and both Žižek and Peterson are long-time employees of the primary institution for the production of weaponized taxonomy. Are Žižek and Peterson more apparatchik than they know?[11] A contrast between their agendas and the agendas of their institutions (radicals would say “pay-masters”) would be interesting; they both are described (even in this debate) as ‘other’ within their respective ecosystems — is this even true? Not explored.

The commodification of culture was mentioned and it’s a shame they didn’t discuss it more — that could have been the entire debate. Strip the meaningless deadening materialism out of Communism and strip the consumerism out of capitalism — both are possible despite the materialistic dialectic — and that provides an avenue to create meaning (and/or happiness[12]) in either economic system. From that point, the quality of meaning that each system can possibly generate can then be approximated to happiness.

In the end…

[1] Not substantively connected to the Al-Ghazali work; I just like the title. That said, at some later point I’ll draw the straight line between Al-Ghazali and Erasmus. The debate:

[2] That’s a compliment to Marx. His strength is observing events he’s close to … his weakness is all other history.

[3] A famous Victorian essay on social mobility — This book precisely illustrates Žižek’s explanation for unhappiness in capitalist systems: the burden of responsibility and inability to assign culpability to others. Peterson would have been wise to suggest that the resulting desperation fuels risk, which the capitalist system seeks to transmute into innovation.

[4] FYI many of these social analysts and critics pre-dated Darwin. The best social critic is probably Dickens.

[5] It’s not encouraging that the flaw in this argument isn’t more transparent to a supposed noted Marxist.

[6] No, not at a surface level … Peterson doesn’t even engage Marx at a surface level. I would argue that he doesn’t even really get close to Marx. Still sad!

[7] An argument considered here:

[8] Seems to me the optimal system is one of dynamic chaos — optimized for transgression and friction. High-precision systems work better/faster until they implode, which always happens. Thus, high-precision cannot be a permanent feature (this is why the EU will fail — any body that extensively debates the difference between a sauce and a salsa, as the EU has done, will collapse).

[9] For Žižek, the entire purpose of philosophy is a perpetual consideration of definition. As such, a faulty taxonomic framework is fatal.

[10] “Ideology” from Das Capital — “they do not know it, but they are doing it” — and thus Marx created the phantom bogeyman industry from which we derive political correctness. Of course, Žižek denies this from the perspective that Marx would have considered identity politics to be petty bourgeois parlor games. In part, Žižek is correct: Marx would have been disgusted by his children.

[11] Probably not, but given Marx’s definition of ideology, one cannot assume self-awareness or self-evidence when considering whether one is independent or whether one has been institutionally mechanized. This is, fundamentally, a “skin in the game” question; both do have skin in the game but it appears to be on the other side … a paradox to explore.

[12] At one point Peterson references ‘happiness’ as a lack of misery; I have no idea what happiness is though both men (kind of) provided definitions. A more thorough exploration of a practical application of a definition would have been productive. That said, Žižek’s definition sounded more like contentment at times than the residual happiness he seeks to define.

About Nathan Allen

Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM Watson Education. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.) Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….



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