An antidote to Jordan Peterson

Canadian psychologist and right wing Cold Warrior Jordan Peterson is currently touring Australia to sold-out shows. Given that Peterson has been described as both “the most influential public intellectual” in the West and a “Messiah-cum-surrogate-dad for gormless dimwits” – as well as being labelled a straight-up fascist – a certain confusion about Peterson and his place in the political and intellectual scene prevails, even within the left.

While Peterson tends to lead in his interviews and written work with truisms and folksy home truths, his political framework is one that tracks closely with the contemporary far right: women crave male dominance, IQ determines life success, and every individual is subject to dominance hierarchies that are both mystical and scientific, cultural and biological, ancient and reinforced in contemporary society.

Yet the contents of Peterson’s best-selling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos reads less like a fascist manifesto and more like a series of Instagram-worthy daily affirmations. From “Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back” through “Rule 8: Tell the truth – or at least don’t lie”, to “Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street”, Peterson’s 12 Rules really does appear to be a simple self-help book.

Indeed, the Australian’s Caroline Overington mocked the prospect of anti-Peterson protests, arguing that Peterson’s talking points “are often quite mild” and are exactly the kind of advice lazy teenage boys need. “Hand a copy of Peterson’s book to the stroppy teen in the basement”, she wrote, “and suddenly the bed’s getting made. What sorcery is this? Well, Peterson’s idea … is that neither you, nor him in the basement, can save the world today but you can improve your own life, and with it the lives of others”.

However, you don’t need to read too deeply to recognise that beneath the platitudes is a dark and regressive world view. Consider this from chapter one: “All that matters, from a Darwinian perspective, is permanence – and the dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism, either, for that matter. It’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy … Dominance hierarchies are older than trees”. 

Parental advice about standing up straight like you’re ready to face the world thus gives way to a pseudo-scientific theory about dominance hierarchies existing before human beings even appeared on the evolutionary scene. Therefore, anyone who challenges these hierarchies – including any oppressed group that has ever demanded equal rights – is not only labouring in vain, but also directly disrupting the natural order of things.

For a long time, Peterson was an obscure academic and clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto. In 2016, he shot to fame by opposing C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act designed to extend discrimination protection to people on the grounds of gender expression and identity. 

Peterson falsely claimed that the amendment would equate misgendering someone with hate speech. He took a stand against it in the name of free speech: “If they fine me, I won’t pay it. If they put me in jail, I’ll go on a hunger strike. I’m not doing this. And that’s that”.

His valiant stand against creeping transgender authoritarianism – he has repeatedly compared trans rights activists to Mao and Stalin – won him scores of fans internationally, especially within the so-called “manosphere” and the alt-right. Never mind that the amendment did not criminalise misgendering. Never mind that Peterson’s risk of going to prison over C-16 was non-existent. Facts, reason and logic are disposable; the important thing is that Peterson was seen to be standing up for free speech and against political correctness, all of which are talking points of the international far right today.

Importantly, the far right both in Canada and beyond recognise in Jordan Peterson one of their own: he’s appeared on a British far-right media channel, alt-right Rebel Media platform regularly hosts him, and he has done a number of online videos with alt-right figures Stefan Molyneux, Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin. When Peterson missed out on an academic grant a few years ago (which he falsely claimed was due to his political views), the alt-right Breitbart Media – formerly headed by Steve Bannon – raised the money. Though Peterson has publicly disavowed the far right, it’s an inescapable fact that he operates comfortably within their sphere.

Perhaps the most obvious sign of Peterson’s parallels to fascist intellectuals who’ve gone before him is his fixation on what he calls “postmodern neo-Marxism”. It’s been rightly pointed out that this term is nonsensical (postmodernism was a reaction against Marxism), yet for Peterson and his disciples, it makes sense. In their view, the world is run by a cabal of Marxist leftists intent on bringing about the downfall of Western civilisation.

In 2017, Peterson even drew up plans to build a website that would blacklist “postmodern neo-Marxist” university courses and academics to discourage students from enrolling in them. Since abandoned, the project had all the hallmarks of McCarthyism. Yet according to Peterson and his defenders, he is one of the few standing up for free speech on campuses.

Peterson is taken seriously by people most of whom are not first and foremost concerned about encroaching cultural Marxism. Rather, his 12 rules seem to offer a way out of the profound sense of alienation that many people experience today. 

One of his oft-repeated aphorisms is that “life is suffering”. This is nothing more than a recycled religious trope. Far from being rational and scientific, Peterson repackages reactionary mysticism and superstition as a way of shifting responsibility away from society and its structures and on to individuals.

Peterson’s ruse is that he offers no answers at all. Not to the big questions facing humanity. He has nothing to say about economic crisis, housing shortages, mass unemployment and the climate crisis. Indeed, a growing community of Peterson ex-fans – who call themselves “ex-lobsters” – make this same point. Typically, they came across Peterson at a low point in their lives but turned on him when they realised he had nothing meaningful to say. As one wrote, “Peterson offers simple solutions to very complex, multifaceted problems. The advice to his young male audience is ‘man up and take responsibility’ but there are so many things that are out of our control as individuals. Look at our extortionate housing market, the cost of living is going up, the precarious gig economy. It’s hard being ‘responsible’ when most young people simply cannot afford any assets to have responsibility over”.

Peterson is dangerous precisely because he’s not seen as far right in the mainstream: tens of thousands have paid hundreds of dollars to see him, puff pieces on him are published in the daily press, and he’s even scheduled to appear on the ABC’s Q&A program – the elephant graveyard of Australian liberal thought. 

It’s the responsibility of the left not only to identify Peterson for what he is – an intellectual whose ideas recruit into the ranks of the far right – but also to offer our own answer to alienation.

Peterson offers his fans a sense of self-worth and dignity. The left needs to show that dignity comes from solidarity, from standing with others against exploitation, institutionalised racism and sexism, imperialism and environmental devastation. Peterson’s “Rule 7” is to set your house in order before you criticise the world. Our argument has to be that criticising the world – i.e. criticising capitalism – and fighting for an alternative is the starting point for putting everyone’s house in order.