Jordan Peterson, a man whose crass theories are often dilutions of evolutionary psychology, which itself is a corruption of the initial and correct instincts of sociobiology (those being that humans must be considered not special but as a part of the natural world), is going to debate an actual philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, next month in Toronto.
Nothing good can come out of this. Those who worship Peterson will gain very little from Zizek, a thinker whose critiques of the forms and manifestations of Western (and therefore capitalist) ideology lose much force when removed from their Lacanian, Hegelian, Marxist contexts. Yes, Zizek is in decline (at least since 2011); and yes, it is a long time since he has written something groundbreaking (in terms of philosophy), but even his new works, such as Like a Thief in Broad Daylight, contain brilliant bits of critical analysis.
I can't even handle this, Jordan Peterson got upset by Zizek's recent article about him so he's trying to pick a fight with a Zizek quotes account pic.twitter.com/ul8e45d3fi
— Shuja Haider (@shujaxhaider) February 14, 2018
As for Peterson, there is nothing in what he says or writes that can be recovered and meaningfully applied to the actual human world (maybe that of gorillas or chimps). Even his thoughts on cultural Marxism, whatever that is or means, are of no value whatsoever. It's not serious thinking.
It must also be pointed out that evolutionary psychology, from which Peterson gets his famous lobster, also infected literary theory as Literary Darwinism (one of the leading proponents of which, David Barash, lives in Seattle; he and his daughter Nanelle Barash penned in middle of the previous decade the awful Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature).
But what ultimately separates Peterson from Zizek, what makes their debate, which happens on April 19 and is called “Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism,” meaningless, is that Peterson, a clinical psychologist, actually and truly believes that capitalism ultimately won an economic contest with socialism.
Where to begin with this belief, which contains little to no actual historical accuracy? Was, for example, the Chartists movement simply capitalism? Or was it, like Ricardian socialism, challenging capitalism? Meaning, was it inside or outside of the system? And what shall we say about things we take for granted today: labor laws that improved working conditions, the secret ballot, the Ten Hours Act (which initiated the reduction of working hours), child-labor laws, the universalization of primary education, and so on? All of these social reforms, and more, faced fierce opposition from the right, from conservatives, from free traders, from Liberals (in the older sense of laissez faire).
But if these developments are considered from Peterson's perspective, then what one sees is a total capitalism, and the history of reforms as a logic within it that compels social and technological progress alike. Socialism in this view of things is simply the Soviet Union and the Cold War (the final years of which surely influenced Peterson). It will not be seen in the obvious places—the FDA, for example.
(At this point, I must share one of my favorite passages from Marx's Das Kapital: "Englishmen, always well up in the Bible, knew well enough that man, unless by elective grace a capitalist, or landlord, or sinecurist, is commanded to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow, but they did not know that he had to eat daily in his bread a certain quantity of human perspiration mixed with the discharge of abscesses, cobwebs, dead black-beetles, and putrid German yeast, without counting alum, sand, and other agreeable mineral ingredients. Without any regard to his holiness, Free-trade, the free baking trade was therefore placed under the supervision of the State inspectors...")
Another of the less obvious locations of socialism is the all-American suburb, which emerged during the post-war period because of a type of home loan that the market (capitalism as itself) could not supply without government backing, the 30-year mortgage. (In post-war US, almost all blacks got stuck with capitalism, and a large number of whites enjoyed the benefits of socialism that was opened by the door of the New Deal.) If one does not see the previously mentioned social reforms, and also a number of long-established institutions of the democratic state, as outside and in constant opposition with capitalism, then they will talk about how capitalism defeated socialism in a Darwinian survival contest (the Cold War).
I will now describe, as briefly as possible, the mind of Zizek. To begin with, he is a messy thinker and, as I said earlier, he is in decline (and the debate with Peterson is clearly a symptom of this unfortunate transition). But in Zizek's lectures and books, he has the habit of hopping from one subject to next without, sometimes, connecting this frantic hopping. But what he does so well is to capture in a few words or pages key and illuminating philosophical and critical theory concepts. At times, he will describe in chop-chop fashion a difficult idea or theory that other thinkers have spent a lifetime and numerous books attempting to clarify.
One example among many. In his 2000 book The Fragile Absolute — or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, which was inspired by Alain Badiou's beautifully considered and expressed little book Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism, he writes, concerning a passage in Karl Marx's and Friedrich Engels work of youthful poetry, The Communist Manifesto, that...
Precisely as Marxists, in the interests of our fidelity to Marx's work, we should identify Marx's mistake: he perceived how capitalism unleashed the breathtaking dynamics of self-enhancing productivity—see his fascinated descriptions of how, in capitalism, 'all things solid melt into thin air', of how capitalism is the greatest revolutionizer in the entire history of humanity; on the other hand, he also clearly perceived how this capitalist dynamics is propelled by its own inner obstacle or antagonism — the ultimate limit of capitalism (of self-propelling capitalist productivity) is Capital itself, that is, the incessant development and revolutionizing of capitalism's own material conditions, the mad dance of its unconditional spiral of productivity, is ultimately nothing but a desperate forward flight to escape its own debilitating inherent contradiction
Marx's fundamental mistake was to conclude, from these insights, that a new, higher social order (Communism) is possible, an order that would not only maintain but even raise to a higher degree, and effectively fully release, the potential of the self-increasing spiral of productivity which in capitalism, on account of its inherent obstacle/contradiction, is thwarted again and again by socially destructive economic crises.
In this short passage, which is dropped as quickly as it is picked up by Zizek, you have what's at the center of an entire intellectual life, a life devoted to formalizing a new and unorthodox critique of capitalism. This thinker is Moishe Postone. He died last year at the age of 75. He completed one major work, Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory, which contains tightly packed and very repetitive paragraphs that lead, step by careful step, to this understanding: "...the mad dance of its unconditional spiral of productivity, is ultimately nothing but a desperate forward flight to escape its own debilitating inherent contradiction."
Postone's conclusion: A socialism that promised progress on capitalist terms was doomed to fail. Socialism was not inside of capitalism (the error of 19th century historical materialism), but an external threat to it.
Now we are getting somewhere. What Zizek writes in a few sentences, and what Postone devoted a big part of his life to, is the idea that progress in capitalism must not be mistaken for universal progress or social progress (a point I made in the context of technologicially advanced aliens), which, as far as we can tell, has never really existed in a transhistorical sense. Or a Hegelian way. History is not one, continuous story of technological revolutions. But, due to its contradictions, capitalism is.
And it's not the progress of humankind but that which propels it to maintain the sole source of all profits: surplus value. It's hard to believe that the fans of Peterson have reached such depths. Postone is speaking another language, and so is Zizek. These thinkers are oranges, but Peterson is not even worthy of being described as an apple. There is no argument here.
Instead of Peterson, Zizek should debate Melania, in Slovenian.
— Steven Shaviro (@shaviro) March 1, 2019