Far from being a darling of the alt-right or secretly promoting fiendish racist ideology, the largest contradiction in Jordan B. Peterson’s sprawling intellectual enterprise is simply the notion that capitalist classical liberalism is the only game we can successfully play on Earth, even as it contradicts the depths of Christian symbols.
Now, this is not intended to be a hit-piece on Dr. Peterson. I have listened to him since the fall of 2016, and he has radically shaped the way I view the world. He is one of the only people on the North American continent I would consider to be a true intellectual. But in the dregs of hero worship, it is too tempting to simply nod along with all that he says. Why wouldn’t I? He is far older, far wiser. But he is also in the archetypal position of ‘dead father’. He represents the golden sphere of the knowledge of both the ancient past and an intellectual development amid the dynamics of the Cold War. In order to effectively embody the spirit of the son, who resurrects the archaic tradition and redeems the blindness of his father, I must pry where there are cracks and make known the fact that no human being is infallible. In fact, if we believe that any human being has secured the total truth on any subject, then every successive generation is an unnecessary appendage insofar as they seek to develop that subject. The son who is incapable of surpassing the father signals the death of humankind, the end of evolution. As such, I must now bring rhetorical wounds against a man who is simultaneously master, bulwark and gatekeeper.
I attended a New York City talk delivered by Dr. Peterson, where much of his worldview crystallized. He explained that the Soviet Union and the West were engaged in a spiritual war over which type of ‘game’ is tenable to play. He concluded that the system of Western capitalism, built upon Enlightenment and mythological foundations (we will return to the mythological) was objectively superior to the Marxist rejection of hierarchy and obsession with central planning. Human nature, so it goes, aligns with the liberal capitalist mode of production.
But Dr. Peterson has made one profound oversight. It is precisely this: capitalism and classical liberalism have destroyed myth. The technological revolution, and the transformation of communal, local bonds of people with shared values into rent-seekers, wage-searchers and otherwise atomized, separate individuals united only by the search for profit, has destroyed the original foundations of human wellbeing. Economics has completely seized and determined culture. Peterson’s notion that economic success equates to playing a good game, or otherwise participating in the good, ultimately leads to a world defined by Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Trump.
The dominance hierarchy is a point of massive spiritual contention. How can the dominance hierarchies of the West be competent when at the very point of Peterson’s peak fame, they are occupied by Trump, a sophist, a marketer, a chronic liar with no internal life, no self-reflection, who will hand over all his wealth to unremarkable, unspecial, mediocre children? The Trump children earned nothing but by virtue of birth, and yet they are in possession of the keys to the world in ways ordinary lowborn people will never experience. How is this not a fundamental, fatal corruption of hierarchy, existing at the pinnacle of the world’s power? Peterson avoids speaking about Trump for this reason: it would force him to admit that liberal capitalism dissolves, finally, into a kind of madness. Decrying left-right polarization, Peterson upholds a center: that center is capitalist realism. The theorist Mark Fisher wrote a whole book about ‘Capitalist Realism’, the notion that social contract capitalism is the final system of economic-political life, and that’s simply that. Except Fisher rejected it, because capitalism destroys community, tradition and culture. It monetizes all these things and produces economically workshopped monoculture. Is it truly heroic to live in a circle for all of existence, the economization of perpetual Star Wars films serving as the only permanent narrative link between us? That is what Nietzsche’s ‘time is a flat circle’ meant – and it is a kind of hell. A world defined by those who purchased it two generations ago is no treading ground for heroes. Of that, I am certain.
Jordan Peterson lives doing what he loves. He makes a fortune off of Patreon and his new book. There is nothing wrong with that – he played the right game. He lived a life of the mind and was paid for it. The upcoming generation will not know what that feels like. University tenure is a non-starter. Being paid to write means working full-time in retail or food service, and not just throughout one’s 20s. Perhaps for one’s entire life. Monetizing a life of the mind is extremely rare. At Peterson’s lecture, I was surrounded by intensely bright, thoughtful young people, mostly young men. But how many of them will get to live a satisfying life of the mind? How many will instead work in offices, and ultimately aspire toward a more fulfilling life than the conditions of an impersonal network of capital that we are supposed to believe is in any way mythically inspired? I suspect that a new generation of Cains will arise out of the low-wage workers who thought they were promised something better.
When we reach the Biblical stories, we reach deeper problems. Equating Earthly success to playing the right game and achieving the good is, in essence, no better than Oprah’s prosperity gospel. People succeed off of bad ideas all the time. Worse, there are bad ideas we don’t even understand are bad, and are structurally incapable of facing. Here’s one: Professor Peterson gave the example of a person buying land, building a factory, and employing others as a total net good. But what if the factory creates irresolvable climate change over the course of 250+ years and sabotages future generations? What if the factory multiplies and creates a monoculture, stifling all new voices and claiming the globe, as Amazon and Google seek to do? When James Damore was fired by Google, Dr. Peterson was rightfully upset. But this is the consequence of prioritizing economics above culture and spirit – economic entities can slaughter free expression. That is entirely left out of a capitalist’s worldview. In fact, by merely writing controversial material, one can be rightfully denied a job by property owners. Fans of Peterson know as well as I do the deep taboos that linger in science. The subject of IQ alone will ruin lives – if intelligence is the predicate of a good life, and only a minority of us will have high IQs, what is to become of the bulk of us? Well, we will merely be followers, members of a herd. That, again, is no hero’s journey.
I always feel put-off by audiences. I felt frankly alienated, when Dr. Peterson said that rule-breaking, criminal children, if not addressed by the ages of 3 or 4, will be rule-breakers for their entire lives and ultimately end up in jail. Peterson’s words didn’t disgust me, but rather, the audience’s reaction did – it was laughter. We are talking about the doom and mass incarceration of millions of lives. We are talking about fate inscribed in biology – and the audience finds pause to laugh it off as just ‘unruly children are funny’? Perhaps they’re not taking this seriously. Perhaps the depths of this problem aren’t fully understood.
Peterson simultaneously argues for self-improvement in the game of atomized profit-seeking, but also that one’s genes largely determine intelligence and the qualities of success, i.e., disagreeableness, conscientiousness, and so on. Monetizing one’s creativity is largely an expression of personality – intelligence plus conscientiousness, with disagreeableness tossed in to ensure you keep coming out on top of negotiations. If you are born without that cocktail, you must work against your own brain where others have a smooth ride.
The same is ultimately true in relation to identity. You can tell minorities to pull up their bootstraps all you want – but ultimately, if you don’t understand that black people today bear the culture and last names of their former slave owners, you must prepare for the consequences of pretending we’re all starting on the same equal, even ground. What would you do in the situation of someone who was excluded in the founding myth of the country? Every anxiety you have compounded by identity-wounds? It would be a hell that young white men do not face. If myths shape our unconscious relationship to culture and nature, then it does matter whether or not our myths are exclusionary. People feel it. Peterson is right to say that you must face the world, no matter what – but also wrong to defend the ‘free’ market of stock buybacks and socialism for the rich, suggesting that pulling up your bootstraps is the only mode of life in which responsibility may properly manifest in individuals. The conservative desire for a totally brutal, independent society for ordinary citizens, while enabling state subsidies and legal tax evasion schemes (Apple pays no taxes) for the wealthy, is an infuriating double standard upheld by centrist capitalism. It goes unrecognized and becomes smoothed over in Peterson’s gospel of competency.
In a Quora question from years ago, the Professor once argued against universal health care, saying that it is wrong to ‘force’ the hands of doctors, the same line of argument used by Ben Shapiro. I will never understand this in any sense. If you are paid, you have to do work, whether it’s a private or public hospital. Either way, declining work means getting fired. There is no real distinction in ‘forced’ labor here. Of what use are our myths if we share no common community worth funding, for those who would otherwise be bankrupted by their bills? If you say churches or local organizations should provide these services, then see to it that megachurches provide anything at all from their coffers. I guarantee you these ‘Christians’ will cling to their purse strings.
On the topic of transgender people, I split in certain ways with Peterson. As I understand it, he is only opposed to the legal requirement to adhere to proper pronouns, which I understand. I reject state authority as well. But what is the transgender individual, at a deeper level? At its core, it is an attempt to break free from the constraints of biology and achieve ‘one’ where previously there were two. This is a good thing. I see much hope in the transgender movement. And it is mythologically driven.
For all that Peterson speaks of the Bible, so far, he leaves out one vital figure, perhaps the most vital figure: Sophia. In Carl Jung’s Answer to Job, Jung calls Sophia the logos itself. He names Sophia the mediator between humankind and God. Who is Sophia? Wisdom. She is the feminine wisdom exiled from the world, because in Gnostic Christian mythology, she created the world without consent from God, and in doing so, created a false God called the Demiurge, and the serpent and the fall. The redemption of the world is the return of Sophia from exile.
In his epic work of Christian mysticism, Valentin Tomberg wrote that the complete Holy Trinity is not father-son-holy spirit. In fact, it is the Holy Trinity plus mother, daughter and holy soul. The Holy Trinity, according to the greatest master of Catholic mysticism I have ever read, is actually composed of six parts, not three, and it is feminine and masculine in nature. It is intersex, or both sexes, it is fundamentally androgynous. There is so much we do not yet understand about human identity – why must traditionalists cut off all possibility for transformation out of fear alone?
To combine the feminine and the masculine is the goal of all this gender trouble, to make ‘one’ where there is now division. In the Answer to Job, Jung refers to Yahweh, or God himself, as “unconscious”, a monster, a beast of nature. It is only Sophia who is able to create self-reflection through the mediation between Yahweh and Job. it is the feminine out of which the logos is born. If modern feminism is corrupt in spite of this fact, it is because culture itself is corrupt. If the transgender movement is incomplete, it is because it is too political and not enough immersed in the archaic foundations for transforming gender, the mythical synthesis of male and female. But we also have ourselves to blame for removing Sophia entirely from our retellings of the Biblical story – Sophia is the feminine Christ. Without her, there is only cruel and delusional Yahweh, the primal God who shaped the world but who is not fit to run it alone.
But in the Q&A after the talk, Peterson explicitly defined the relationship between male and female as that of Christ and Mary. In other words, Mary raises Christ. The purpose of women is not to become heroes, but to raise them. That is impossible for a truly ambitious woman. If I were born a woman, obsessed with these mystical and philosophical questions, I would resent that statement so deeply I may never recover. Peterson’s philosophy is centered, in this way, upon a male subject. In order to redeem the father, the next generation of mythical thinkers must reorient the woman out of this secondary position. Perhaps that entails changing the very biology of childbirth – with artificial wombs, who knows what will follow. The tranhumanist idea must return Sophia to the world, not be finished at the half-answer of Mary. Valentin Tomberg, interestingly enough, spoke of the Mary-Sophia as the ultimate form of the woman. Both raiser of heroes and the hero herself. That is completeness and perfection. Not this half-answer of women in one corner, men in another, men striving, women bearing children. The reason for the fall and the progress of history is to return to Eden with higher values and more complete myths, not merely to repeat the past. Of that I am certain.
Lastly, the paradoxes of Genesis are not fully appreciated by Peterson’s focus on Western capitalism, property, and contractual profit-seeking life. Ultimately, success in this world is success of the serpent. That much is clear. Satan, and the serpent, are the Gods of this world. And God obeys the serpent! God listens to evil, and bullies Job. God allows evil to run rampant. And this world, crafted in the image of the serpent, is not the place to lay down and hand over one’s lifeblood. Financial success in this nature, this fallen nature, genetic, cyclical birth-death-birth-death nature, is only temporal. Manipulating the mechanisms of fallen nature to secure a wife and get a job are not the full extent of the hero’s journey. The true extent of the hero’s journey is in solving the problem of the fall. It is the return of Christ crucified to heaven. Now, the Marxists have tried to solve this problem, to create paradise and equality on Earth, and they have failed. But I am still committed to the attempt through means other than Marxism.
Finally, Christ himself is the ultimate paradox. I mean, let’s be serious about this. Pontius Pilate and the Romans who crucified Christ were victorious on the dominance hierarchy. Christ was defeated, destroyed. So why, then, is he the maximal expression of the hero in Christian myth? He was crucified by those who did secure wives and careers, and who passed down judgement, and succeed over others. And yet, the man who was destroyed, and not his destroyers, is the ultimate hero. It is because worldly success is not true success. There is a difference. There is absolutely a difference.
My ultimate concern with Peterson’s capitalism is that the modern world has become a place ill-suited for heroes, designed to make us dumb, dull and conformist, and he acknowledges this – he sees the difficulty of the situation, but it is the young, careerless and unmarried who will truly have to figure out a solution. In truth, we will be the ones who face it. The young, those who grew up immersed in the virtual, and the chaotic fragmentation of the decaying liberal order under Donald Trump. That is our inheritance – not the Cold War, not cultural Marxism. Those are both side-shows that make us feel good about our own cultural signaling, while resolving virtually nothing. At the Q&A, two people who asked questions were indicative of madness. One of them opened the question session by asking why Jews have been trying to destroy Russia for two-hundred years. Peterson, wisely, said “I can’t do it”. Touching that question is touching a fine sprinkled dust born of unkempt hair, the aesthetic of the alt-right, But another questioner was taken seriously, though he bothered me immensely. All I could think when he spoke was “Joseph McCarthy”. This kid asked Peterson: “How can we tell the difference between the Marxists trying to destroy Western civilization and the useful idiots?” Some in the crowd cheered. I saw the true nature of that question – authoritarianism. Let’s not be deluded by present culture wars – the right is just as authoritarian as the left, and more successful at implementing its ideas. The original dissident intellectual was the Western leftist. The pendulum will always swing back and forth, and the only way to reject it is to reject the mindset of these damn inquisitors. Yes, I’ve got problems with Western civilization. I live because there are problems to be solved. They are major problems. If the structure is good enough so that nothing major must be changed, then I was born after history ended, and will simply work my way to a cyclical grave. No. I’d rather make a world fit for heroes.
What is a hero? Someone who redeems the blind sight of the past and renews myth by speaking the truth. Well, the truth is that the world of fetishizing Earthly games as a path to goodness and truth is the world that leads to a monoculture dictated by Google, Amazon and Facebook. Individuals unrestrained by mythical truth, modern capitalists, have transformed their ideas into leviathans more massive and powerful than any idea can functionally be. If Jordan Peterson opposes communism, he must also oppose the corporate communism of a world split between a handful of companies that determine the communications, ideas and structure of the world. And that corporate communism is the consequence of believing that classical liberal capitalism is the only way we can possibly live. One entrepreneur, with one idea, one hero – Mark Zuckerberg? No. Something went wrong. He is no Hercules. The myth has degenerated into marketing. It must be made into something more.