With his recent book’s success and with over 40 million views on YouTube, Jordan Peterson’s star is on the rise. His conservative and alt-right fan base is heralding his interview with Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman as a victory against “PC Culture.” Newman’s attempt to refute Peterson through cordial debate failed after she conceded to elements of his worldview, including the need for corporate hierarchy and an ethos of competition. In response to Newman’s statistics about the wage gap, Peterson argued that this inequality was a necessary part of the capitalist dynamic. He even complimented Newman on securing a high-paying job thanks to what some people would consider “masculine” characteristics. Despite Newman’s relatively polite behavior, she soon faced a misogynistic backlash.
Peterson is often portrayed as an enigma. Those on both the Right and Left defend him against charges of fascism and membership in the alt-right. Mainstream pundits admire his so-called consistency and coherence — some even praise him as a great philosopher. This is certainly true of David Brooks’s recent New York Times op-ed, which extols Peterson as a public intellectual for the YouTube age.
Peterson’s fans argue that he is not a fascist, just a classical liberal; not a racist, just someone who acknowledges “ethnic differences”; not a misogynist, just honest about the real differences between men and women. Many of his fans see his arguments not only as commonsensical but also scientifically accurate, a belief supported by Peterson’s credentials as a professor of psychology and a clinical psychologist.
With all of the focus on issues of free speech and how the Left allegedly has turned authoritarian, there is something missing in discussions of Peterson. Rather than being an “enlightened” and “scientific” critic of postmodernism, Peterson’s critique of the Left is fundamentally Nietzschean.
Consider the Lobster
Peterson’s empirical observations, which range from zoology to pop psychology, all share an aristocratic disdain for modernity. His worldview aligns with classical liberalism’s elitist and antidemocratic tendencies, as epitomized by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek’s respective praise for Benito Mussolini and Augusto Pinochet.
But Peterson adds something to his predecessors’ economic liberalism: a tragic conception of Being (which he capitalizes, after Heidegger) in which the world is divided between winners and losers. This authoritarian worldview naturalizes domination, weaving hierarchy into the very fabric of existence.
Critics often mock Peterson for his comparison of lobsters and human beings. According to his most recent book, 12 Rules for Life, the sea creatures’ life-and-death struggle is a model of human society. Following battle, the combatants experience a chemical effect: the superior lobster begins to secrete more serotonin, while the weaker, or inferior, lobster is deprived of these happy chemicals. Echoing the worst features of nineteenth-century social Darwinism, Peterson uses this example of lobster hierarchy to analyze human society.
He reduces class conflict to a natural and eternal struggle for existence that no political or economic revolution could ameliorate. The individual lobster — sorry, human — must develop an aggressive, alpha-male attitude in order to climb the social ladder. Peterson bases his worldview on one example from the animal kingdom — an example belied by other instances in which animals engage in mutual aid and cooperation.
Peterson’s writings are a hodgepodge of Christian existentialism, Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, and E. O. Wilson. But the main philosophical issue is his Nietzschean conception of power. Only a strong will, exercising itself against a contingent and meaningless world — and against the weak — can ever hope to flourish.
Peterson’s philosophy presupposes a stark division between an atomized world of facts and a transcendent realm of meaning — what he describes as the tension between chaos and order. Peterson gives these principles of order and chaos Jungian significance as masculine and feminine archetypes. This is the dualism of existence that gives life meaning. But it is the rationalist tendency, starting with René Descartes and ending with Karl Marx, which denies the mystery of existence to forge a rational utopia. For Peterson, this rationalism is responsible for the horrors of the twentieth century and culminates not in an emancipated future, but in the gulag and Auschwitz.
After Stalinism crumbled, the old Marxism continued in the guise of what Peterson calls “neo-Marxist postmodernism.” Like Nietzsche before him, Peterson sees the metaphysics of reason, as embodied in the Enlightenment project and modern socialism, leading inexorably toward relativistic nihilism. Nietzsche called this condition “passive nihilism” and argued that it could only be overcome with an “active nihilism” that would create a new system of values based on new modes of slavery and mastery. When Peterson criticizes “neo-Marxist postmodernism,” he is merely repeating Nietzsche’s diagnosis of passive nihilism — that is, the slavish revolt of the masses.
Peterson’s positivism — the dualism between descriptive facts and values — makes his Nietzscheanism possible. If the world is an atomized chaos of facts, it needs a strong will to define it and impose order. In Peterson’s need for something that transcends this chaotic reality, he subjectively imposes a mystical solution for the alienation and suffering of humanity, grounded in a Nietzschean version of Christianity and original sin. The strong will inherit the kingdom of heaven, while the weak are destined to fail.
When we theoretically confront Peterson, we need to do more than refute his pseudo-scientific claims, his bad pop psychology, and his Cold War–inflected version of history. The real challenge is overcoming his fundamental irrationalism.
Our tragedy as human beings is much more banal than Peterson’s romanticism would have it. We do contend with a fundamental irrationalism, but it doesn’t come from an inherently unknowable and mysterious world. Rather, it comes from capitalism.
Peterson’s philosophy reflects the brutal nature of capitalism’s irrational demand that we sacrifice human beings for profit, which he transforms into a call for individuals to sacrifice themselves for something transcendent and holy. In other words, Peterson tries to Latinize the bourgeois kitsch with mediocre calls of self-actualization. But the self is not actualized: it is told to kill or be killed in capitalism’s endless competition.
Ironically, Peterson’s critique of postmodernism is itself very postmodern. His description of postmodernism as a new form of “dialectical materialism” that exercises totalitarian thought control not only echoes Cold War polemics against Marxism but also certain tendencies within French postmodernism. These accounts, such as Lyotard’s, accuse the Enlightenment, Hegelian dialectics, and Marx of constructing “metanarratives” on top of an irreducibly complex reality. Peterson shares the French post-structuralists’ fear that reason lends itself to a logic of domination. Indeed, Peterson recapitulates Heidegger’s own influential rejection of the “Cartesian Self” as the launch of a new stage of civilizational nihilism.
Any attempt to confront Peterson’s worldview must deploy the legacy of reason within Marxism’s own commitments to dialectical logic and human freedom. But we cannot limit ourselves to composing philosophical polemics or debunking Peterson’s many scientific and historical errors. The fight against reaction does not start in the liberal editorial office but in organizing concrete struggle.
Peterson’s narrative reduces leftist sentiment to resentment, envy, and anger among society’s “losers.” This echoes George Orwell’s dismissal of British socialists as merely filled with spleen and bile against the rich; Peterson compares the analysis of the Left in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier to Nietzsche’s critique of slave morality. Orwell rejected socialist “cranks,” a category that included feminists, in favor of a commonsense approach that appealed to the educated middle class, an analysis that pushed him rightward toward the end of his life.
We must reject the characterization of Peterson’s fan base as normal people who are sick and tired of the politically correct left; this assumption simply repeats Nietzsche’s disdain for the common struggles of the oppressed, including the struggles of racial minorities, women, and LGBTQ people. It accepts a standard of normal as defined by the mainstream media or, worse, by the alt-right themselves. For instance, Peterson’s refusal to respect people who use different pronouns to express their identity is no small issue, but a central one for recognizing the humanity of transgender people.
Peterson does not speak for what is “normal.” His jargon of authenticity — that he is just a simple academic fighting for truth amid so much political correctness and censorship — masks his authoritarian ideas. He calls Marxism a “murderous ideology,” but his paranoid and conspiratorial politics are hard to distinguish from the alt-right’s denunciations of cultural Marxism. Indeed, the line between Peterson’s authoritarianism and Richard Spencer’s paleo-Nazism is a blurry one. In their appeal to middle-class liberals, the reactionary’s best alibi has always been militant anti-communism.