Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson claims to offer his followers a life of purpose and heroism. But what he is really selling is pacification.
A world of grotesque income inequality, collapsing political systems and hyper-capitalist exploitation breeds sadness, resentment and corrosive anger. The external reality of fear and insecurity is mirrored in an inner landscape of psychic pain.
Rather than making individuals freer, neoliberalism has trapped them in a Kafkaesque world of expanded bureaucracy, surveillance and economic austerity. As cultural critic Mark Fisher put it, the neoliberal market fanaticism of the last several decades “psychologically trashed” many people, leaving them feeling constantly stressed and inadequate.
While impoverished people are often unable to get even basic psychological assistance, a deep malaise also affects the precarious middle classes.
This is compounded by the stress posed by the future itself. Millennials [those born between 1981 and 1996] and Gen-Zs [those born from around 1995 to the mid-2010s] globally are facing the worst economic depression in a century and the very real possibility of catastrophic environmental collapse.
But, for Canadian psychologist and right-wing self-help guru Jordan Peterson, acknowledging the realities of political and social oppression is just an excuse to shirk personal responsibility.
In his new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, he describes how he was asked to counsel a young woman whose anxiety about the environment had plunged her into a deep depression.
Peterson is not unsympathetic to her distress. But he does not suggest that she try to do something positive about her fears, such as joining the global climate movement, working with others to avoid a nightmarish future. Instead, his advice is that she pulls herself up by her bootstraps and stops worrying about the future.
Peterson maintains that dissatisfaction with capitalism, racism and gender oppression are actually excuses to shirk personal responsibility. Any attempts to radically reform the world will lead to gulags and totalitarianism. Better to focus on your immediate life and working hard to succeed within the capitalist system. The good life can be achieved by masochistic self-sacrifice.
He believes that social hierarchies are necessary and natural for humans to flourish. In one of the book’s chapters, he tells lowly paid service-industry workers to embrace their place at the bottom of the totem pole and to show the correct deference to their bosses, who work harder and know best.
Advocates for domination and hierarchy
Peterson belongs to a lineage of conservative thinkers who view domination and hierarchy as fundamental facts of social existence. Philosophers like the proto-fascist Friedrich Nietzsche and the fanatical libertarian Ayn Rand claimed that democracy and socialism were motivated not by a desire for social justice, but the resentment of the weak against the rich and powerful.
While Nietzsche favoured fiery polemics, and Rand made her case in poorly written novels, Peterson’s outlets are YouTube videos and self-help books. Astutely tapping into the culture war that fuelled the rise of Trump and the new Right, he gained an audience by warning of the supposed dangers to “free speech” posed by “Neo-Marxists” and transgender people.
Building on the ideas of the collective unconscious originally developed by Carl Jung, Peterson claimed that all human societies are defined by an eternal battle between “order” (which he associated with masculinity) and “chaos” (generally associated with femininity).
While describing himself as a “centrist” opposed to extreme politics on both Left and Right, there is no question that the patriarchal and anti-leftist elements of his work appealed to online misogynists and the alt-right.
Peterson was often treated with fawning reverence in the media, such as in a New York Times article that framed him as a luminary of the “intellectual dark web”. But rather than representing unorthodox thought, other members of this web included aggressively partisan media grifters like Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin – both linked to the Republican Party.
For his most ardent supporters, like South African media personality Gareth Cliff, Peterson was a sage offering profound insights into the secrets of human existence. In a review and accompanying interview around the 2018 bestseller 12 Rules for Life, Cliff praised Peterson for “doing the heavy lifting” of reading authors like George Orwell. Apparently, familiarity with widely popular novelists available in airports the world over is a truly Promethean intellectual feat.
For Cliff, Peterson told it like it is. “Being an activist, dyeing your hair purple and protesting Donald Trump is an utter waste of time if your own life is a mess,” he said.
False claims about human society
Less credulous critics, however, challenged Peterson’s bluster and sweeping claims about human society. Psychologists and anthropologists argued that his opinions of world mythology and evolutionary biology were used to claim that class and gender hierarchies were natural and unchangeable. This required omitting counter-evidence about the mutability and diversity of human cultures and experience.
In his essay Jordan Peterson and Fascist Mysticism, Pankaj Mishra showed the parallels between Peterson’s work and the intellectual scene in which 20th century Fascism emerged.
Mishra noted that many of his key influences – such as Carl Jung – had been initially sympathetic to groups like the Nazis, because of shared beliefs in esoteric nonsense about racial memory.
Rather than being an original thinker, Peterson’s success came from giving a pseudo-intellectual gloss to the politics of Trump and Brexit and angry conservative grievance culture.
Peterson’s response was to call Mishra a “sanctimonious prick”, “arrogant racist son of a bitch”, even threatening to “slap him”. In contrast to his image as a sage voice of reason, Peterson has shown himself to be a volatile character.
While claiming that the “Left” hates free speech, he regularly threatens frivolous lawsuits against his critics. He even called for an algorithm to be developed that could weed “neo-Marxists” out of academia.
This disjuncture between Peterson’s sanctimonious image and his actual behaviour became even more glaring since his big public breakthrough in 2018. He promoted bizarre fads like an all-meat “lion diet”. It was later revealed that he had become addicted to benzodiazepine tranquillisers.
Peterson disappeared from public life into a series of rehab facilities in Eastern Europe. This spectacular public downfall – which included colourful details of his daughter’s relationship with a Stalin-admirer who claimed to be possessed by a demon – even elicited speculation that he had died.
Claiming to have overcome addiction and depression, this new book is intended to advance the Peterson brand back to its former status. He dispassionately describes his various health crises and concludes that by overcoming them, his story has hints of “the heroic element of redemption” and “the nobility of the human spirit requiring a certain responsibility to shoulder”.
Peterson’s preferred narratives
The apparent nobility of suffering and misery defines this 500-page book. Rambling and repetitive, Peterson waxes on all his favourite topics: the decline of traditional masculinity, entitled millennials and leftists.
But he spends as much time going into remarkably detailed recounts of Disney animation and Harry Potter movies, which he regards as encoding the most profound metaphors about human existence. And dragons, a topic that seems to truly dominate his imagination. It’s often hard to tell if this is the cultural menu of a 58-year-old celebrity or a 10-year-old child.
He has no interest in fictional narratives that do not conform to a simplistic, good-versus-evil worldview. For him, social critique, irony, moral ambiguity and stories about anti-heroes are both frivolous and potentially subversive. The only tales that count are about (primarily male) protagonists subduing and conquering “chaos”.
Peterson concedes that individuals cannot exist in social isolation. He argues that strong relationships with family and friends are key to becoming a “hero”. But he won’t acknowledge any other form of human collectivity beyond those limited networks.
This echoes Margaret Thatcher’s position that: “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”
Peterson sees no issue with the ethically corrosive social values of late capitalism, or with the power and entitlement of the super rich. Nor do the still-visible legacies of racism and colonial violence seem like substantial issues worth addressing.
Attacking progressive ideas
He implies that Karl Marx, for example, was himself motivated by bitter envy of the more successful, and wanted to get revenge on them in the name of ending inequality. He believes that this tradition of intellectual resentment continues to this day, albeit now expressed by post-structuralist thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jaques Derrida.
Peterson doesn’t actually detail why he specifically believes that their work is so morally objectionable, but assumes that his audience will know to steer clear of these degenerate French philosophers. Nor does he explore the many tensions and contradictions between Postmodernism and Marxist ideas.
Like Nietzsche and Rand, Peterson joins a long conservative tradition of portraying progressive ideas and movements as pathological expressions of plebian envy. This is based on a fundamental misreading of why people critique and revolt against dominant social and economic orders. Contrary to Peterson’s claims, Marx’s critique of capitalism went far beyond the question of inequality.
Instead, Marx argued that capitalism and the state, and social relations it is embedded in, are dehumanising precisely because they condemn most people to a life of drudgery and prevent the full flourishing of the individual personality.
From Peterson’s patrician standpoint, revolt and social contestation are caused by outside intellectual agitators, who mislead the gullible masses. This myth of outside subversion ignores how people develop resentment and anger because they are confronted with the visceral experience of injustice and corruption on a daily basis.
Rather than emerging from deviant intellectuals hanging out in coffee shops all day, the socialist, communist and anarchist movements of the 19th and 20th century were built by the daily, grassroots struggles of workers, artists and rebels.
Misrepresenting the Left
In his book Proletarian Nights: The Workers Dream in Nineteenth Century France, Jacques Rancière studied the newspapers and poems of early socialists. What he found was that this new urban working class were not merely motivated by material struggles, but by a vision of a more emancipated way of life. They dreamed not of resentful revenge, but of living a life of freedom.
For his own political purposes, Peterson has to ignore these humanistic radical traditions. It is better to frame the Left as a homogenous block, focused only on violently achieving state power.
This caricature also leads to ironic contradictions. Peterson praises the work of historical radicals such as poet William Blake and the Surrealist art movement. He pretends that they were apolitical “sages” rather than card-carrying utopian radicals, who challenged the exact same orthodoxies of class and gender structures that he is so adamant to defend.
Reading this book is exhausting. There is no room for discussion, argument and ambiguity in his work – just rules and orders.
If you focus on his precepts you can have a truly good life, he claims. For him, that often seems to mean an idealised version of the Canadian small towns he grew up in: marrying your high school sweetheart, having a stable job with good pension benefits and not thinking about the world beyond work and family. This ignores the hypocrisy and abuses that went on behind the picket fences of his imagined eternal 1950s suburbia of the soul.
And it cannot account for the contemporary realities of economic precarity, declining social mobility and automation, which mean that the world of capitalist stability he promotes no longer exists.
Realistically confronting the perils and existential threats of our time means honestly acknowledging that many of our “traditions” and supposed common-sense ideas about nation, duty and personal reasonability lack any authentic meaning for the present reality.
Rather than honestly confronting these contradictions, Peterson offers a barrage of Hallmark sentimentality and over-bearing moral smugness. He is less a challenging thinker than a late capitalist Calvinist preacher, telling his congregation to relish needless suffering and internal repression.
Instead of presenting his audience with paths towards a more engaged life, he is pacifying them with simplistic dreams of order and rigid social roles. The question is, who will they blame when the world frustrates their efforts to find a meaning in their suffering?