Marx and Pareto
Curiously, given his wide-eyed fascination with dangerous ideas, Peterson sees the value of a more concrete, though admittedly limited, analysis when it comes to Venezuela. This obsession has been on display with his harassment of Naomi Klein on Twitter.
(I’ve yet to see him comment at all on the terribly illiberal, shambolic, poverty-stricken, humanitarian disaster zone, Colombia right next door. As is ever the case, in adopting the neoconservative political outlook, you must cultivate a peculiar sort of selective blindness. One that allows you to get very exercised about the misdeeds of official enemies, and those essentially out of your control, while never even noticing those taking place within your country’s sphere of influence.)
Generally, however, when Peterson finds pointing to graphs relating to “Venezuela!” insufficient, on economic matters he will cite the “natural law” of Pareto’s principle. This, he’ll then explain, completely discredits Marx with an air of “and that’s all you need to know, really”. And, not for the first time, I suspect he’s relying on second-hand sources.
Pareto wasn’t attacking the supposed “central tenant” of Marxism that wealth inequality grows solely from the way capitalism functions — which it isn’t — he took issue with Marx’s conception of surplus value. SV being the idea that those who own the means of production profit to the extent they don’t fully compensate the value of their employees’ labour. So Marx and Pareto were both in agreement: relatively speaking, wealth was amassing in fewer hands. What separated them was Pareto’s explanation for this: the richest, by being the richest, were demonstrably the most deserving in society.
Bloomsbury’s bruiser wasn’t so simplistic. He was well aware that those toiling hardest during the Industrial Revolution rarely received their due. An assessment shared with that classic British liberal, John Stuart Mill, who wrote in 1879, “reward, instead of being proportional to the labour and abstinence of [citizens], is almost in an inverse ratio to it”. Hence the impassioned denunciations of slavery by both men, and, in Marx’s case at least, the conviction that those who worked the factories ought to own them. (Although, we should bear in mind that Mill was interested in a sort of “revolutionary, competitive syndicalism” according to John Gray.)
Would Marx modify his principles radically were he somehow brought back, in 2018? Child slaves in the Congo currently mine for the cobalt that grants ‘us’ our dazzling technological supremacy, and workers across the developing world, in those fluorescently-lit satanic mills, do the dirty work required to keep Civilisation ticking. Coincidentally, these same groups will be among the first to pay for a climate catastrophe they did relatively little to bring about. Who though, be they Tory, social democratic, liberal, green or other, cares about them. No party can bring themselves to adopt such far-off abstractions personhood. Acknowledging this global class, or ‘proletariat,’ would upset the preconceptions of far too many (something Orwell, JBP certainly knows, was very conscious of in his day). Many leftists would lose an opportunity to moralise over historical and a select few present crimes; conservatives would miss being able to fear-monger about horrors like slavery that they insist are in their germinal state. Better to pretend that every nation, and — if you’re a certain type of right-winger, every person — is a quarantined state.
“For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.” (Walter Benjamin)
Marx’s analysis of racism, class conflict and the other mechanisms underlying wealth centralisation, could be flippantly dismissed if Peterson was able to prove we live in a society with absolute equality of opportunity. That some flimsy category of “competence” alone, the best counter he’s got, explains inequalities.
Surely this why he asserts that privileges based on skin colour or gender simply do not exist? He knows that recognition of, say, institutionalised racism, or even the existence of people who haven’t worked a single day for their vast riches — or, conversely, people who are competent, work damn hard and get practically nothing for it — would completely undermine his ideological commitments. Commitments propped up by a facile conflation of the natural and social sciences.
It’s unsurprising given all that, that Peterson rather discuss the “malevolent forces undermining society,” than the resolutely anti-benevolent forces propping it up. Although let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Peterson is right when he claims today’s Marxist academics have replaced their God That Failed with Imagined Utopia. That they are trying their hardest to undermine “Western Civilisation,” by subverting its openness, and damaging its traditions and liberal democratic processes. Let’s also conveniently ignore that Marxism began, and largely remained, a creed of the geographical West. How the aim of its most fervent believers was never to destroy civilisation. (They in fact saw their ‘historical role’ as one of ushering in society’s next logical step: a change in management.) With all of that granted, I suppose responsible citizens had better check in on the obscure journals these wannabe tyrants write for. At least once.
After all, people should know what these rogues and firebrands are saying, if they really are “malevolent”. (Likely the most precious of all Peterslam’s buzzwords.)
With those pre-emptive defences in place, then, perhaps, upstanding citizens could turn their attentions toward subversion of another, and far more pernicious, kind.
State interference in academia and journalism in the Soviet Union was, we all know, bad. A truism. Tactics of infiltration and manipulation, in what was once honestly called psychological warfare by the CIA and other Western intelligence services, was —is? We are yet to learn Peterson’s view, as he’s busy battling those promoting zhe and the like. Indeed the pronoun development is so insidious, that perhaps he hasn’t any time to concern himself with the intellectual prostitutes tasked with building consensuses, academic and public, on the trifling matters of war, peace and the acceptable limits of economic reform. The 20th century history of which has been so engagingly documented by Christopher Simpson and Frances Stonor Saunders.
Or I could be more harsh. Subversion and corruption, in and of themselves, aren’t things which concern Peterson.1 Because it is only when such underhanded, conspiratorial projects conflict with his narrow conceptions of right and Civilisation more generally, that are audiences treated to a tantrum.
“The distance between the rhetoric of the open society and the reality of control was greater than anyone thought. Everyone who went abroad for an American organization was, in one way or another, a witness to the theory that the world was torn between communism and democracy and anything in between was treason. The illusion of dissent was maintained: the CIA supported socialist cold warriors, fascist cold warriors, black and white cold warriors. The catholicity and flexibility of the CIA operations were major advantages. But it was a sham pluralism and it was utterly corrupting.” (Andrew Kopkind)
(To be fair to JBP, there is a third option, and that’s pure ignorance. Academic debasement of the type carried out during Operation Mockingbird hasn’t featured in the work of Stephen Hicks. So it could be that such things have passed him by.)
Lessons in Exasperation
Peterson admits to a “bigger than slight” derision for activists, who “act out the delusion that they care” about the things they protest. Besides, they surely have bigger worries than nuclear weapons, corporate malfeasance and systematic injustices… like their bedrooms! Oh dear, here we go.
The interviewer paid him the compliment of reading this as metaphorical, which, observers will no doubt appreciate, is never a sure thing with Peterson. He then asked the professor if he really expects agitators to perfect their personal lives before challenging any of the above. (This interviewer was very capable and male, which perhaps explains why his fans haven’t been spreading clips from this encounter around like a bad cold). Should, for example, Martin Luther King have sorted out his imperfect personal affairs before embarking on the march for civil rights? Peterson responded with, “his own faults didn’t preclude his social responsibility”. He soon realised he was dangerously close to answering the interviewer’s question, and contradicting a long-standing blanket condemnation of left-wing activism, so returned to anecdotal self-help territory.
That’s interesting, the questioner replied, and attempted to prise out the political implications.
“Jesus! I’m saying something simple: if you can’t make your damn bed, quit waving placards at corporations. It’s like, Jesus man, seriously!”
It’s Harold Bloom by way of Peter Griffin. He again took a chance to repeat the completely unsubstantiated claim that “exactly the opposite is being taught in the universities,” and that ignorant 18 year-olds are being told “they should change the socioeconomic structure of the culture”. It’s disheartening that someone who wants to shut down a good portion of humanities courses doesn’t know a thing about what he’s criticising. You don’t even have to attend them, a cursory look at the modules provided by sociology, anthropology, and, surely he knows this, psychology lecturers, will show otherwise. Perhaps he thinks understanding institutions is in itself dangerous and “corrupting”. Because, after all, nothing bothers a certain type of conservative more than the expenditure of critical faculties.2
Prefaced with the observation that Peterson ignores crucial matters which cannot, in the slightest, be linked to the Postmodern Neomarxist infection, the interviewer asked him to specifically address anthropogenic climate change. Toronto’s Oracle responded with, “what should I say about climate change? … -Did you drive here?” No, the interviewer responded, he used public transport. “Ha-ha, well…”
Cue a not at all reassuring laugh,
“No, it is the point! Part of the problem with climate change is irreducible complexity. It’s like, y’know, there’s a cost to our existence, and the cost is externalisation. Externalisation of cost! We don’t know how to manage that. And I would say: should we be concerned about it? And it’s, like, yeah! Absolutely! Do we know how to be concerned about it? Not really.”
So we can dismiss the calls by scientists, engineers, sadly marginal politicians and others for systematic responses to climate change, because either:
- Those advocating such a course — and, here, someone wondering out loud about it — are functionaries of Civilisation, and as such are themselves contributing to CO2 emissions. Hypocrites!
- No one can tell you with 100% certainty how you, personally, ought to be “concerned”. his implicit dismissal of those climate scientists (who have a far better record of predictability than social scientists, by the way3) who are trying desperately to get their seismic proposals adopted, the contradiction is obvious. Lessening one’s “CO2 footprint” is one way of fairly responsibly responding to global warming. And not driving, as Peterson acknowledges when he thinks he can get by with the hypocrite charge, is one way of doing that. BUT, enough of that. Don’t you know there’s unkempt beds out there?!
“I think your bedroom is important. I seriously think that.”4
Doubling (or quadrupling?) down on his now a little creepy assertion that activists should be more focused on their bedrooms than their planet.
Here we go again… instead of concerning themselves with complexities, why don’t these discontents put their trust in those at the top? They reached the top, for Christ’s sake! (Obviously this doesn’t apply to postmodernists who have topped academia, though.) The Market knows best, sorting the wheat from the chaff as it so ably does. Even if it does have the tendency to elevate those “insane” few, “usually men,” who are willing to put in the obscene amount of work required to get there. So, you’ve just got to have faith that those most reliably deranged are the best to rule, bucko. Don’t protest, kick up a fuss or call for serious reform. Just believe that the class which has gotten us into endless wars (from drugs to Terror), unshackled an economy that hungrily pursues unlimited, unsustainable growth, and which have almost obliterated life on Earth with the weapons they monopolise… Believe that those malicious tailless apes will do, well, not necessarily what’s ‘good’ — we have all read enough Dostoevsky to see political virtue as the transparent sham it is — but will carry out their necessary social role: namely, preservation in the strictest sense.
Despite his hysteria and frequent lies, I wouldn’t take issue with Peterson if he was inspiring young people to get their act together and improve existing institutions. Making the systematic changes required to push back against our society’s apparent death drive. Instead, they are being told to have faith, stay schtum on a whole host of issues, and accept the rules of the game set by the New Right as somehow immutable. That monstrous creed which insists that all must be sidelined by the markets on their short-termist, fatalistic path.
It isn’t the millions dying as a result of capitalism’s shortcomings (although they deserve notice), it is those other externalities which Peterson shows the vaguest recognition of. The pollution of our waterways and soil, desertification, the rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases, the severely inequitable distribution of resources — something which is already leading to major violence. It is these things which are piling up with ever more intensity, and passing lip service, along with a blind faith in those up high, won’t suffice. Our current societies, culture, institutions or Civilisation (that concept JBP seems to think is monolithic, with clearly drawn parameters) or whatever you wish to call it, can’t afford to ignore these threats that, instead of ameliorating, it is reproducing and exacerbating. Once global temperaturess have risen the two degrees conservative estimates have them doing — and soon — Petersonites may then realise how limited and closed-minded that conception of “preservation” they were sold really is.
Before ending, it’s necessary to inspect how the man chooses to describe himself.
Peterson is in the inexplicable position of ascribing to the political project of a “classic British liberal” (c. 18th century) without accepting any of the philosophical foundations those men of the Enlightenment depended on. Locke was certainly not the determinist that Peterson is (that’s biological-, until a Disney film becomes the subject); and Adam Smith wasn’t blind to the drawbacks of the systems he conceptualised. His comments on the likely stupefying effects of a division of labour are revealing, and are typical of someone who genuinely valued aspects of the human condition unrelated to productivity. Smith was also far more optimistic, and was to a fault. See his predictions that the natural sympathy of landowners for the less fortunate would compensate for their rabid pursuit of self interest; and, more embarrassing than that, that international trade would end war. I mention those two because it’s inconceivable that Peterson considers himself in the more radical tradition of Paine, Price or Toland.
Could it be that we have yet another public intellectual who cites the Enlightenment as their guiding star, without acknowledging that it is in fact a multifarious constellation?
None of the preceding saw truth as being merely what has proven useful for survival either, which doesn’t sit well with Peterson’s pragmatism. All believed in capital-p Progress or some sort of perfectibility of Man, too; ideas thoughtful conservatives have tended to whince at (and, on occasion, taken up arms against).
Gray has written of how these thinkers by and large prefigured what we call capitalism. Which itself, as he points out with a suggestive reference to the New Right, predated mass suffrage. It is not unreasonable to imagine that, with the profoundly undemocratic onset of institutionalised capitalism, were they alive many of those men would’ve continued to remain sceptical of concentrated power, and would have carried on to rail against the uncritical acceptance of convention — something which did differentiate them all from Tories. Likely choosing as their targets of scorn those who sought to merge the new entity of the transnational corporation with church and state; over decrying the fruit-juice drinkers, nudists, sandal-wearers, sex-maniacs, Quakers, Nature Cure quacks, pacifists, and feminists of the day.
Noam Chomsky’s more nuanced and coherent approach to liberalism has seen him criticise earlier theorists of this tendency, but emphasise the hostility to apathy and obedience found throughout their work. His Responsibility of Intellectuals should be read by all those who have lost their grip on place and precedent.
To underscore the point that our culture has been through all this before, we should consider his comments on Irving Kristol. The latter was a proud neocon who was genuinely bewildered by the mass student movements of the 1960s, a coalition of forces which make today’s offerings look lame in comparison.
“…Kristol turns to the question of what motivates [the student movement] — more generally, what has made students and junior faculty “go left,” as he sees it, amid general prosperity and under liberal, Welfare State administrations. This, he notes, “is a riddle to which no sociologist has as yet come up with an answer.” Since these young people are well-off, have good futures, etc., their protest must be irrational. It must be the result of boredom, of too much security, or something of this sort…”
Kristol was writing at a time before ‘virtue-signalling’ was coined, and before Peterson rediscovered the potency of that defining human motivator, pinched from Malthus: resentment.
“Other possibilities come to mind. It may be, for example, that as honest men the students and junior faculty are attempting to find out the truth for themselves rather than ceding the responsibility to “experts” or to government; and it may be that they react with indignation to what they discover. These possibilities Kristol does not reject. They are simply unthinkable, unworthy of consideration. More accurately, these possibilities are inexpressible; the categories in which they are formulated (honesty, indignation) simply do not exist for the tough-minded social scientist.”
(It’s also worth being reminded that intellectuals used to be willing to face jail time for taking a stand against unjust wars, as opposed to whatever Peterson imagined would land him behind bars.)
As Peterson goes around the world saying all he does, I’m told, and told again, that he “is being heralded as one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals”. (Just why do these journalists rely on the exact same turns of phrase? And why are they not honest enough to admit that they are the ones heralding?)
Many of those who in fact know something of postmodernist theory or neo-Marxist philosophy — because, hold onto your fins, they are not the same — can’t take the man seriously. In his joining of those distinct categories to create his big, terrifying Other or Them, he’s, in Wolfgang Pauli’s phrase, not even wrong. That’s certainly not to say leftists more generally shouldn’t engage with him. Peterson may not be a serious thinker, but the committed following he commands is very real.
Consequently, when a good portion of them seem to believe the BS that a minority x is a threat to everything they hold dear, matters necessitate a response.
“The anti-Western philosophy that is being pursued so assiduously by the radical left.”
With comments like this he’s reinforcing the falsehood that the effigy that some untrustworthy theorists before him have erected, and branded cultural Marxism, is far more dangerous than the old-school reaction currently sweeping the corridors of power, and not at all under the dreaded guise of cultural theory. It’s the responsibility of others to point out the obvious, however tiresome: this bogeyman is so clearly made of straw.
And go further, by stating the case that that other movement, typified by Trump, Putin, Modi, Erdoğan, Duterte, Berlusconi, Orbán, Morawiecki, and all those other revolting nationalists, is a rather more pressing concern. One to be opposed, and not strategically aligned with because they do battle with the forces of secularisation, relativism, equality and all the other heresies born from, or supported by, liberal thought. I repeat, Jordan Peterson a “classic British liberal,” a traditionalist, communitarian and pragmatist, the self-proclaimed scourge of postmodernism, a Nietzschean, opportunistic crusader for Enlightenment values who, at the same time, encourages men to “offer your sons up as a sacrifice to God,” is not a serious thinker.
Should anyone else insist on using the same archaic language as the man of the hour: it’s not the barbarians at the gate or in the trendy coffee shops we need to be worried about. It’s the barbarism inherent to our institutions. Because it is that which leads us collectively to make the same mistakes again, and again, and again; with ever more tragifarcial consequences, in this the nuclear-tipped Anthropocene.
Personal tragedies inevitably follow; false prophets not far behind. Offering easy answers (for a fee), and a embrace that, ever so subtly, turns to constriction…
How pathetic, how troubled, how sad an age that propels frauds like Peterson to stardom. How frightening.
1 While we’re on such matters, what of the part more overt propaganda plays in throwing up our leaders? Being an ideal fit for any given role doesn’t necessarily make one the most convincing at communicating that. As Edward Bernays knew, when dealing with irrational creatures like humans, image management is essential for success in democracies. Not for nothing is the public relations industry amongst the largest in all these societies.
2 Walter Bagehot:
“As long as the human heart is strong and the human reason weak, royalty will be strong because it appeals to diffuse feeling, and Republics weak because they appeal to the understanding. A secret prerogative is an anomaly — perhaps the greatest of anomalies. That secrecy is, however, essential to the utility of English royalty as it now is. Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. When there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.”
3 Why this is so is an interesting question. It could be that human affairs are infinitely more puzzling for science to make sense of than the domain of climate, where variables are comparatively easier to define.
4 When you read declassified documents, you are repeatedly reminded that concerns for human rights, or “special interest” concerns like the ecosphere, are only expressed due to the impact infractions might have on public opinion. Civil disobedience is verifiably worthy.