By: Adrià Salvador Palau, Jon Roozenbeek & Thomas Dahms
In Western Europe, politics has reached a fragile status-quo: the right is dominating in the realm of economics, and the left seems to be winning the culture war. For the latter, there are signs that the tides are turning, perhaps best represented by the sudden popularity of a conservative Canadian clinical psychologist named Jordan Peterson, whose latest book has made him the best selling Canadian author of all time. Peterson is fighting the left in the trenches of culture, determined to fill a void that he says the right has so far ignored.
The end of the Culture Wars
Before Jordan Peterson burst onto the scene, conservatives had sensed that previously hugely controversial issues such as gay rights and support for diversity had become so ingrained in society that opposing them would mean political suicide. The left knew this, and over the years successfully campaigned for the rights of oppressed groups. A sizable majority of artists, academics and journalists agreed with the left in this respect, which eventually led to a near-hegemony for left-wing views on many cultural and societal issues. Some even went so far as to label this apparent hegemony as “the end of the culture wars”.
One recent example is the reaction from the Spanish center-right Partido Popular to a feminist general strike in March this year. President Mariano Rajoy and his supporters went from a subdued opposition to the strike’s stated goals, wary of the leftist language in the strike manifesto, to a humiliating surrender. On the day of the strike, Rajoy and other high representatives were seen wearing the feminist purple ribbon, and conceding the need for “real equality”. Since then, Rajoy and his candidates have been kicked out both from the government, by a left-leaning coalition, and from the leadership of his party by someone more right-wing than him.
Part of the left’s success is explained by the right’s failure to build a cultural discourse that doesn’t seem outdated (religion), dangerous (state nationalism), or straight up crazy (conspiratorial ethnocentrism). Traditional right-wing parties across Europe are heterogeneous medleys of adherents of apparently contradictory ideologies, yet dominated by technocrats who profess to care about efficiency and economic returns. This dominance of technocratic ideas on the right has been reinforced by the fact that, for quite some time, only technocrats have been able to obtain victories in metropolitan areas, where the far right has continued to fail. Examples of this are the victories of relatively moderate right-wing politicians such as David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, all of whom obtained good electoral results in their countries’ wealthy, urban, culturally liberal areas, and all of whom addressed cultural issues, if at all, with remarkable cautiousness.
This abandonment of the cultural battleground by traditional conservative parties has brought two recent developments: the rise of independent right-wing populist movements (usually ethno-nationalists), and the creation of new, purely technocratic conservative parties that embrace the abandonment of traditional positions on cultural issues. Both developments can be observed for instance in Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel, long-time leader of the Christian-Democratic CDU has shifted significantly to the left on issues such as same-sex marriage and immigration. In so doing, she has managed to take a lot of political breathing space away from the SPD, the CDU’s social-democratic rivals. At the same time, her leftward shift created space for a new right-wing populist party to appear, the AfD. This ended up contributing to the end of her political career, after the populist right-wing AfD and the Greens eroded her position in the federal states of Hesse and Bavaria. But have these developments had any effect on the cultural dominance of the left?
The Left’s “creeping death”?
Indeed, there are signs that the left’s traditional strategy of focusing on equal rights may be losing momentum. We see this not only in the increasingly popular dismissal of “PC culture” in some online communities, but also increasingly in media outlets and in politics. For example, France recently banned the use of “inclusive writing” in official texts because this made the texts clogged and unclear and posed a “mortal danger to the French language”. The French Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, said that French “should not be exploited for fighting battles, no matter how legitimate they are”. Here, the French left failed to gather enough support for using inclusive language as a way to promote gender equality. Another example, also from France, is the letter that was sent by over 100 French feminists denouncing the #MeToo movement. Its authors argued that “insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression”.
To understand this loss of momentum, one should recognise that the left has long been the host of a deep intellectual divide between what one might call “classical Liberals” and “Marxists”. Roughly speaking, the former emphasise that respect for individual freedoms and rights should be paramount. To classical liberals, a fair society guarantees equal rights. This is something that conservatives have long failed to fully acknowledge, which is why liberals have tended to identify with the political left. By contrast, Marxists have always focused on the rights of oppressed or underprivileged groups. So far, these differences have not been overly relevant because civil rights issues (women’s and minority rights, etc.) were important for liberals and Marxists alike. However, once these issues were more or less resolved, the left entered a situation where battles over cultural issues were often presented from a confrontational group perspective: feminism versus the patriarchy, diversity versus white privilege, and so on.
The framework in which the modern left conducts these cultural battles is often influenced by postmodernist ideas. Postmodernism emerged around the 1970s and was popularised mostly by French thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard. Many of their works address questions of cultural identity, such as race, gender and sexuality. Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define. It describes both a period and a set of ideas, both focused on questioning the postulates that emerged in the Enlightenment. Postmodernist thought often espouses a loss of faith in the scientific method and in other ideologies such as Marxism and Western Capitalism, paired with a relativist approach to cultural differences: no culture is truly “better” than another, it depends on the perspective from which you analyse them.
Here we see the beginnings of a divide: classical liberals don’t agree with cultural relativism nor the aversion to empiricism that is crucial to postmodern thought. They also disagree with the Marxist vision of codifying into law group differences, except when adhering to the concept of “all equal under the rule of law”. We see this debate play out today in left-wing disagreements over affirmative action and proposed quotas for women on company boards.
These new cultural fights have galvanised the side of the left that feels more inclined towards Marxist and postmodern perspectives, but at the same time are alienating classical liberals. To them, a fair society guarantees equal rights to every individual, regardless of class affiliation. At the moment, this division is becoming stronger and thus more visible than it has been for the last decades. The result is that the coalition between classical liberals and “Marxists”, which has allowed the left to dominate in the big cities and centres of intellectual power, has been weakened.
So what does all this have to do with Jordan Peterson? He emerged as a conservative response to what he describes as an alliance between Marxists and Postmodernists. Peterson was a fairly unknown University of Toronto professor of clinical psychology until he decided to speak out against provision C-16, a bill that was introduced to the Canadian Parliament in May of 2016 and passed later that year. Officially, the provision “amends the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.” Peterson argues that C-16’s goal is to put into law the obligation to use an individual’s preferred pronouns. In his view, putting compelled speech into law was the red flag that signalled the left’s abandonment of liberal principles.
As a fierce critic of Postmodernism, Peterson claims that its fusion with Marxism stemmed from the fact that Postmodernism is so nihilistic in its reductionism to cultural constructs that it becomes impossible to implement in the political arena. Marxism, with its much more straightforward transmission from ideology to action, thus gives postmodernism political meaning.
A series of Youtube videos and a public argument with transgender activists thrust Peterson further to the front of the debate. His public appearances caught the attention of various Youtube podcasters. Among them Joe Rogan, whose Youtube channel has over half a billion views. Within a matter of weeks, Jordan Peterson was born as a Youtube star, and his channel started accumulating millions of viewers as well.
But what does Peterson actually stand for? In his first book, Maps of Meaning, Peterson outlines the cornerstones of his philosophy. It is not by any means an easy read, and it has the flavour of a book written by a young man scared of being eviscerated by his older peers. The language is complicated, the terminology is over the top, and some paragraphs are very, very dense. Peterson, however, does make some valuable points. His overall argument is that human ethics were passed down from generation to generation through a set of archetypal stories. These stories explain how individuals should behave in society, and form the backbone of human culture, which for Peterson is the tool that humans have developed to survive in a chaotic world. Peterson believes that, in Western civilisation, the Old and New Testaments serve as the main conduits for these stories.
In the period following Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous declaration that “God is dead”, Peterson claims, Western civilisation underwent a period of moral deterioration that ultimately resulted in the horrors of the twentieth century. Maps of Meaning can be read as a rationalisation of the importance of archetypal Biblical stories. It’s his attempt to find a place for traditional morals in a post-Nietzschean society.
In order to understand Peterson, it is important to come to terms with his idea of truth. Despite his praise of empiricism and modern science, Peterson is not a materialist. Instead, he is a pragmatist: for him something is true enough if it works. He agrees with other modern thinkers such as risk researcher Nassim Nicholas Taleb and mathematician John Lennox in suggesting that superstition and religious belief shouldn’t be dismissed off-hand as idiocy. The idea is that seemingly absurd superstitions may have non-trivial consequences for the probability of survival of those who hold them, and therefore these stories have managed to endure the test of time. Given that nature is known to be governed by highly complicated nonlinear dynamics, Peterson and others argue that it is very possible that humans have evolved to learn survival strategies, possibly including superstitious behaviour, that can’t quite yet be rationalised but nevertheless work.
Peterson’s next step after becoming a Youtube star was to write a self-help book: 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos. The book is a compilation of his original 42 rules for life that he had posted previously on Google’s question-and-answer site Quora. In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson expands on his arguments from Maps of Meaning by trying to distil his philosophy down to simple to understand, easy to follow rules of behaviour.
A star is born
12 Rules for Life sold incredibly well, and after its launch Peterson became a regular guest on television programmes to promote and discuss it. When journalist Cathy Newman now famously interviewed Peterson on the UK television outlet Channel 4 in January 2018, she appeared not to be aware of Peterson’s philosophy. From her questions, it became clear that what she was concerned about was that a conservative university professor had just written a self-help book, and that this book was becoming famous. She seemed to believe that Peterson was far more radical in his views on feminism, equal pay, lobsters and transgenders than he actually was. Come interview time, Newman found herself in front of somebody ready to competently address each of the questions that she posed to him. The interview went viral and was soon seen as a textbook example of how not to interview someone on television. Regardless of Peterson’s ideas or one’s opinion of the interview itself, Peterson emerged from the Channel 4 studio as one of the Western world’s most influential public intellectuals. And he is a conservative.
But is he?
In some important ways, Peterson’s ideas are actually not too distant from those of some prominent left-wing intellectuals. For example, Peterson is fond of the theory that around 1970, when western Marxist intellectuals found out the reality of the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism, they were left to face the harsh reality that the real-life models on which they had based their philosophy were bogus. As a reaction, they invented Postmodernism, and with it cultural relativism: “if we were wrong, nobody can be be right ever again”.
However, this is not Peterson’s theory alone.
It’s also Chomsky’s.
The famed linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky has criticised Postmodernist thought with consistent vigour since its emergence in the 1970s. His opinion is that the whole theory is “embarrassing”, and has been “demonstrated conclusively to be complete nonsense”. The following quote is a good example:
“In the humanities, there is a field called theory, who are just like the physicists: They talk incomprehensibly, we can talk incomprehensibly. They have big words, we will have big words. They draw far-reaching conclusions, we will draw far-reaching conclusions. We are just as prestigious as they are. Now if the physicists say: well, look, we are doing real science and you guys aren’t, that is white male sexist bourgeois.”
Chomsky’s rejection of Postmodernism and poststructuralism dates back to a now-famous debate between him and Michel Foucault about human nature back in November 1971. They debated whether human nature was genetically constrained (Chomsky’s position) or mostly culturally constructed and constrained by power structures (Foucault’s). Chomsky explains Postmodernism the same way that Peterson does, practically word for word. On French Marxist intellectuals and their invention of Postmodernism, Chomsky has this to say:
“I won’t mention names because it is embarrassing, one of the leading French cultural theorists who happened to visit me around 1974, and she was a flaming Maoist. A couple of years later she was one of the first people who understood to have discovered Maoist and Stalinist atrocities. Okay, when you went through that transition you’ve got to do something else. How are you going to be on the front pages? Along comes the invention of post-structuralism.”
Regardless of the many sensible annotations that one could make about the significant differences between Postmodernism, post-structuralism and Marxism, it’s clear that contemporary left-wing parties in Western Europe have used these ideologies to build their cultural agenda. Peterson manages to wrap them all up into a single narrative, and provides a counter-narrative from a centre-right point of view. In doing so, he is not afraid of borrowing ideas from left-wing thinkers like Chomsky or physicist Alan Sokal.
Furthermore, Peterson’s narrative, built on modern philosophy, neuroscience, history and psychology, is not mainly epistemological in nature, but ethical. This means that Peterson does not primarily aim to explain how the physical world is functioning. Instead, he tries to explain how one should act in this world – and in his own words “you cannot believe how desperate people are for this”. This is perhaps what makes Peterson’s critique so popular and effective. It also explains the saintlike status he rapidly achieved among many of his followers. In the end, this is what saints have done throughout history: telling people how they should act in the world. For many of the millennials in his audience, nobody has ever done this with the same success as Peterson.
Peterson’s critics, however, point out that he rather sloppily confuses different schools of thought, such as Postmodernism and post-structuralism, and attack his insistence on conflating these ideas with Marxism. There is perhaps some truth in that, but to audiences outside the humanities this largely sounds like obscure nitpicking between two schools of thought that are hard to grasp however you explain them. Peterson has responded to this criticism saying that he knows the technical difference between the two, and that he is simply pointing out a political alliance. Another emerging criticism is that Peterson is failing to live up to his own standard as a paragon of free speech. In September of this year, he threatened to sue feminist critic Kate Manne for calling him a “misogynist”, in a rather puzzling attempt to crack down on certain unpalatable opinions.
Peterson’s narrative loses some consistency in the battle between his secular mind and his religious soul. It is unclear why, but he seems to have become doubtful about his exact commitment towards religious ideas. In a series of interviews, he has been hesitant about matters such as the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
“Did His body resurrect? I don’t know… I don’t know. The accounts aren’t clear, for one thing. What the accounts mean isn’t clear. I don’t know what happens to a person if they bring themselves completely into alignment. I’ve had intimations of what that might mean. We don’t understand the world very well.”
It is perhaps in this difficult marriage of secularism and Biblical beliefs where Peterson’s stance is at the same time at its weakest and at its strongest. On the one hand, he has come up with a narrative capable of forging a coalition between secular liberals and the religious right. On the other hand, these two belief systems are irreconcilable especially in one aspect: the belief in the existence of supernatural forces.
Another criticism frequently leveled at Peterson is his supposed sympathy for right-wing extremists (racists, identitarians, ethno-centrists, fascists, and so on). Peterson has, however, repeatedly disavowed the far right. In fact, he claims that he’s managed to convert many right-wing identitarians to a more moderate position. Peterson’s rough approach to liberal principles speaks to disenfranchised, young, often white, working class men by being for them the paternal figure that they perhaps never had. Peterson has been eager (some say too eager) to talk to the fringes, and to try to understand them. This often puts him in very uncomfortable situations, when attendees to his talks ask him about “the Jewish conspiracy” (which he has directly addressed), and other supposed cabals of sinister overlords. Peterson, not being a politician, can afford going into the fray to try to convince such hyper-ideological individuals to abandon their reactionary beliefs. As such, he is almost uniquely positioned to bring fringe elements of the political spectrum back into the centre.
A master of puppets?
It is unclear whether left-wing politicians and commentators are aware of the ideological challenge that they are facing, but judging by the fiery reactions Peterson manages to evoke it seems like they have sensed something is afoot. Peterson’s Youtube view counts are unparalleled by any progressive intellectual, including Chomsky. Both in book sales and Youtube views he is trashing every record, and it is just a matter of time before mainstream conservative parties start adopting some of his views and political points.
This emerging “Peterson Coalition”, an alliance between disenchanted classical left-wing liberals and the traditional centre right coalition of libertarians and traditional conservatives, has the potential to become a force to be reckoned with. The European left should sleep with one eye open.
Photo credit: Nicolas Mavreas