Toughen up: Jordan Peterson, Machismo, and Late Capitalism
What can be said about Jordan Peterson that hasn’t already been said? Plenty of journalists, writers and academics have produced rebuttals to his ideas much better than anything I could hope to do. He has shown himself to be immune to criticism, ignoring, mocking or physically threatening anyone who writes articles critical of him. So then, what is the utility of writing an article for a leftist publication that he and his fans will likely never encounter?
To start, Jordan Peterson recently made a trip to Dublin along with eugenicist Charles Murray and noted torture advocate Sam Harris, where he discussed religion, meaning, hierarchy and outdated Jungian psychobabble. I have thus far been unable to force myself to sit through more than a few minutes as I find it dreadfully dull, but I am not an expert in any of their respective fields of research, so this isn’t really their fault per se. There clearly was interest, however, as thousands showed up for the talk and from this it is apparent that many in Ireland do find these ideas worthwhile and convincing. The demographics of the crowd shouldn’t surprise those familiar with Peterson’s work. According to a write-up of the event published by the Iona Institute, most attendees were in their 20s-30s, about three quarters were men, and would not generally seem the type to spend an evening listening to a philosophical debate. They were mostly attractive, fashionable urbanites who would do well in modern society. So why then are so many, especially in Ireland, drawn to his message?
Peterson preaches a mixture of “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” morality and a call to return to traditional elements of hierarchy which modernity has cast aside, such as the family unit, patriarchy and religious thought. This may not sound particularly new or interesting to many familiar with such rhetoric, but Peterson appeals uniquely, in my view, to the disaffected youth who find themselves adrift in the modern capitalist world. Neoliberalism has in many ways destroyed traditional structures in favor of new ways of living. Sometimes this manifests in progressive change like the advancement of LGBT rights or feminism, though such advancement is frequently only in service of the ruling class. It has created a new middle class of young urban professionals and silicon valley type entrepreneurs, who eschew the traditional modes of life in favor of new trendy lifestyles. A mixture of communitarianism, pseudo-progressivism and unhinged free market capitalism that was dubbed the “Californian Ideology” by sociologists Richard Barbook and Andy Cameron has defined economic existence for many millennials over the past decade. For those on top, it can be a great system which gives them freedom to explore new ideas, challenge social norms and pursue business opportunities without fear of interference from the government, nor judgement from general society.
Now, Marxists of course are never ones to argue with the destruction of old reactionary customs. However, late capitalism creates a scenario where the losers of this system, more specifically those who fail to accumulate enough capital to enjoy life, have no real support structure. Welfare, family bonds, social relations and cohesion are slowly being eroded by capitalism. While of course, removing the old familial structure isn’t a bad thing, what has taken its place is a society that values the accumulation of capital over all else. With the fast pace of society, many find themselves awash in an ever changing sea of social values. A prime example of this is Japan. The unregulated ultra capitalism that has characterized Japan’s economy for over the past 40 years has produced immense growth, yes, but at the expense of its younger generations. Whereas the old structures of family and tradition provided an anchor for many, they are now replaced with an ultra competitive market economy that puts little value on relations to others while simultaneously encouraging massive workloads and business success rather than personal fulfillment. Those who cannot compete often find themselves cast down to the bottom of the social hierarchy, becoming shut-ins and misanthropes. In Japan, an online culture of reactionary misogynists and racists has developed similar to the American alt-right.
This is where people like Peterson come in. Rather than diagnosing their issues to be a result of capitalism, he instead blames the degeneration of social values and old structures to be the culprit of this reality. He identifies movements like feminism, atheism and socialism as the main forces behind this, and attacks them for creating a vacuum where traditional values once were. This is of course a red herring, as these movements seek not to eliminate any form of social solidarity or familial relations, but the ones which are outdated and oppressive. The actual cause, the development of neoliberal capitalism and its emphasis on consumerism, corporatism and efficiency, has done away with the old and brought in a society where worth is defined by utility to the current economic order.
Peterson simultaneously inspires a reaction against social progressivism while upholding the status quo of economics. Any attempt at socialist thinking is immediately discredited and even blamed for the current ills facing society. Consequently, the young people, both men and women, frustrated by modern life, find an outlet in Peterson who redirects their anger from capitalism toward progressivism.
In Ireland, which has undergone rapid globalisation in recent decades, the same phenomena can be seen. A previously conservative country, Ireland has seen some social progress in the areas of gay marriage and abortion, but has seen traditional support structures like the family, welfare and community erode under recent administrations. As a result, thousands of youths find themselves poor, underemployed and aimless. Thousands more fall even further into homelessness, drug addiction and crime. This provides fertile soil for Peterson’s brand of reactionary self-help, where those dissatisfied with life are taught to suck it up and deal with it, while simultaneously being encouraged to turn away from economic analysis in favor of reinstituting old moral values. Many have and continue to preach similar ideas, but Peterson has shown himself to be especially talented at relating to middle class and bourgeois frustration about society, as well as the fears that men have towards the advancement of feminism, and other dominant groups have to progressivism.
Unless a shift towards a socialist order where a person’s needs are guaranteed, and their value extends farther than their ability to produce, occurs, then Ireland shall see a similar rise in conservative sentiment among its youth, and will move farther away from ending the problem of capitalism entirely.