If you had the misfortune of suffering through the “debate” between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek, I offer you my solidarity. Peterson and Zizek put on one of the most pathetic displays in the history of intellectuals arguing with each other in public. This was not Foucault versus Chomsky or even Hitchens versus Hitchens. It almost makes the Bill Nye versus Ken Ham debate look good, and that’s really saying something. Peterson and Zizek began with long, 30-minute speeches, ostensibly on the subject of which system is more conducive to human happiness—capitalism or socialism. The two speeches had virtually nothing to do with each other and very little to do with the topic.

Peterson went first. If you did high school debate, you know that this should have given Zizek an advantage. He knows what Peterson has said, and in theory this should enable him to reply to Peterson. But instead, Zizek read a bizarre, meandering, canned speech which had very little to do with anything Peterson said or with the assigned topic. This is a pity, because Peterson made an argument I have seen many times, one which is incredibly easy to beat.

I teach politics at the University of Cambridge, and we have this class called The Modern State and Its Alternatives. One week, we have the students read The Communist Manifesto along with a bunch of other texts on communism and socialism. My students then write a 2,000 word paper in response to the prompt “Is socialism a viable alternative to capitalism?” Most students write something interesting, but every year a small number of people write what I call “the bad Marx paper.” There are three necessary features which distinguish a bad Marx paper:

  1. The paper contains a close reading of the Manifesto.
  2. The paper contains almost no references to any other texts, either by Marx or by other socialist thinkers.
  3. The paper contains a long digression about all the reasons the Soviet Union was terrible. I call this the “tankie-bashing” bit.

It’s very clear what has happened. The student read the Manifesto, because it is short and doesn’t take very long. They didn’t read any other socialist texts. Eventually, they ran out of things to say about the Manifesto and filled up the rest of the word count with tankie bashing.

This is what Jordan Peterson did with his half hour. 

He starts by saying he read the Manifesto, as all first year students do:

Alright, so, how did I prepare for this? I went—I familiarized myself to the degree that it was possible, with Slavoj Zizek’s work, and that wasn’t that possible because he has a lot of work and he’s a very original thinker, and this debate was put together in relatively short order. And what I did instead was return to what I regarded as the original cause of all the trouble, let’s say, which was The Communist Manifesto. And what I attempted to do—because that’s Marx, and we’re here to talk about Marxism, let’s say—and, what I tried to do was read it.

Peterson then claims to have picked out 10 claims in the Manifesto with which he disagreed. He doesn’t number them, but with some effort I think I managed to pick out the 10:

  1. History is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle. Peterson disagrees, because people have non-economic motivations. But he does admit that human beings are often hierarchical, and that hierarchies tend to concentrate power. Might we think of the rulers as one class and the non-rulers as another class?
  2. Peterson argues that Marxism doesn’t deal with natural scarcity, that we need hierarchy to deal with that. Fortunately for us, Peterson then claims that human hierarchies aren’t exploitative because that’s “unstable.” He doesn’t defend this assertion or engage with the Marxist conception of exploitation, presumably because he only read the Manifesto and neglected other work which clarifies it.
  3. History can be thought of as a binary class struggle, with clear divisions between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Peterson disagrees, because he thinks this division is unclear. He doesn’t engage with Marxist definitions of these terms, presumably because he only read the Manifesto and neglected other work which clarifies them, like G.A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. He claims that the Soviet-era deaths were caused by this lack of clarity—the first instance of tankie bashing. He also alleges Marx to be something of a Manichean, claiming that Marx views the bourgeoisie as “all-bad” and the proletariat as “all-good.” Peterson says this is why he doesn’t like identity politics. At no point in this is Peterson using any citations or quotes to support these claims. At least my students will make some effort to show how their interpretation is supported by the text.
  4. The notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Peterson says that Marx thinks this is a good idea because he thinks the proletariat is inherently good. Peterson says the proletariat can’t rule as a class, that certain members of the proletariat inevitably rule, and these people are corruptible. Marx himself is admittedly pretty vague about socialist political institutions. Many other socialists have more to say about them, like Eduard Bernstein, but Peterson only read the Manifesto and only seems interested in talking about Soviet-style institutions.
  5. Peterson now says that you can’t take a complicated system like the free market and replace it with a centralised mechanism without specifying how the people who run this centralised mechanism will be chosen. Again, other socialists have thought about this, and some socialists—like Janos Kornai and Alec Nove—want some level of decentralization, at least in some sectors. But Peterson didn’t read them, and apparently he hasn’t read them in his 56 years on the planet, despite repeatedly giving authoritative talks which purport to be about Marxism. He does not seem to have encountered the notion that you can be a socialist without being for unlimited centralization.
  6. Nothing the capitalists do counts as labour. Peterson admits that landed aristocrats don’t engage in labour, but he claims that people who run businesses are adding value as “managers.” He also claims that it doesn’t make sense for these managers to exploit their workers, because they would get more value out of the workers by not exploiting them. Peterson doesn’t see that attempting to get maximum value out of one’s workers is constitutive of exploitation for Marxists because Peterson hasn’t read enough Marxists to know how they use that term. He also doesn’t bother to engage with the Ehrenreichs’ work on the “professional-managerial class”, or “PMC.”
  7. Profit is theft. Peterson disagrees, arguing that because the managers add value, they are entitled to profit. But this isn’t what Marxists mean by “profit.” Profit is not the money the firm uses to pay the managers, it’s the money the firm uses to pay investors or to reinvest in the business. It’s tied to investment, not managerial compensation. The Marxist objection is not to investment per se—socialist states do a lot of investing—but to the exploitative relationships which bring that investment about. But Peterson didn’t read Cohen and the Ehrenreichs, so he doesn’t have a detailed picture. Peterson then makes an argument which vaguely appeals to the value profit has in sending price signals to producers, but lots of socialist models include price signaling mechanics—Nove discusses them at length.
  8. The proletariat will become “magically hyperproductive.” Peterson says he couldn’t figure out why Marx thinks socialism is more productive than capitalism. There are other theorists who have discussed the ways in which capitalism might begin to “fetter” the productive forces in ways which socialism could unleash—particularly Cohen—but Peterson doesn’t read them.
  9. Eventually this hyperproductivity will create a post-scarcity condition. Here Peterson briefly name-checks the theory of alienation, which has heretofore been left out, claiming that for Marx this is the point at which it becomes possible to do away with alienation through spontaneous creative work. Peterson thinks this creative work doesn’t suit everyone. Most socialists don’t share Marx’s notion of the perfect human life and envision a diverse array of cool things to do in their utopias, but say it with me: Peterson doesn’t read most socialists.
  10. Marx says that the capitalist system is, to this point, the most productive system. Peterson thinks this is Marx conceding the argument—if capitalism is the most productive system in history, why change it? This is the point in the talk where Peterson most clearly reveals his lack of engagement with the content of Marx’s theory of history. Marx thinks that each economic system is the most productive in history when first introduced, but that eventually each outlives its usefulness and is replaced by something more appropriate to the technology of the time. It’s at a point like this where I really wish Peterson would read Cohen’s Defence.

Peterson spends his remaining time alleging that Marx’s theory led to a “special form of hell”—more tankie bashing—while claiming that all systems produce inequality, but at least capitalism generates a lot of wealth.

The core issue with all of this is that the Manifesto does not, by itself, provide the reader with the full understanding of the different ways of interpreting Marxian socialism—let alone all the other kinds of socialism that are out there these days. This is why we don’t simply assign the Manifesto by itself. It is accompanied by a variety of additional texts, some of which are socialist and some of which criticize the socialist project. Students who do the reading often have interesting things to say about the viability of socialism, from multiple ideological perspectives. I wouldn’t be writing this piece if Peterson produced a thoughtful, critical engagement. The problem is that he is treated as a great intellectual and invited to speak to large audiences about socialism when it’s very clear he hasn’t read anything about it.

In my view, Marx makes three key contributions to the history of thought, each of which has been further refined and added to by those who have been influenced by him:

  1. The theory of alienation, which criticises capitalism for denying us the opportunity to be creative or to otherwise self-actualize.
  2. The theory of exploitation, which criticizes capitalism for forcing workers to surrender some of the value of what they produce by threatening them with starvation and homelessness.
  3. The theory of history, also known as “historical materialism,” “dialectical materialism,” and even “technological determinism,” which alleges that more competitive economic systems out-compete less competitive systems and that social structures, ideas, and cultures develop in a manner which serves to legitimate and support these economic system. In other words, the mode of production, or the “base,” determines the social relations, or the “superstructure.”

Peterson doesn’t seem to deny that capitalism involves alienation and exploitation, but he sometimes expresses uncertainty about how precisely exploitation works. To be clear, the people who are exploited are the people who are compelled to work by the threat of poverty. These are the wage-earners. The people who don’t have to work for a living because they have enough resources to be idle might, in some cases, do some work anyway. But if they are not being compelled to work, because they are capable of living comfortably off their investments, they are people who live off what they own rather than what they earn. This is what separates the proletariat from the bourgeoisie. The proles earn wages, the bourgeois own capital. There are some people—primarily professionals and managers—who earn enough to retire and live off investments without the assistance of a public or employer-funded pension scheme. These people are the PMCs—the people the Ehrenreichs talk about. They do the actual work of managing the economy and are given just enough that they will tend to help the truly rich defend the system. But there’s a large gap between them and the wealthy. Millionaires are not billionaires. Wilson Chandler, a middling NBA player for the LA Clippers, made $12.8 million this year. He has a net worth of $35 million. He’s in the top 0.01 percent of the income distribution. But he’s paid by Steve Ballmer, a man with a net worth of $46.5 billion. He spent $2 billion just buying the team. Chandler’s net worth is 0.07 percent of Ballmer’s net worth. Ballmer could employ more than 3600 Wilson Chandlers in a year before he’d run out of wealth. Chandler is a professional. Ballmer is an owner.

But while Peterson evinces some understanding of what the theories of alienation and exploitation are about, he misses the theory of history completely. To start, Peterson thinks that Marx is uninterested in humanity’s battle with nature. But this is precisely where the theory of history begins. For Marx, we develop economic systems to meet our material needs—to ensure we have the resources we need to survive. For Marx, primitive economic systems—like chattel slavery, feudalism, and capitalism—rely on the exploitation of human labor power to meet those needs. But eventually, Marx hopes we can develop the technology necessary to end exploitation, and even to overcome material scarcity itself. Peterson thinks Marx isn’t interested in nature, but Marx’s theory of history is a theory of how human beings might overcome nature.

Each economic system produces the conditions necessary for its own obsolescence. When a society institutionalizes slavery or feudalism, that makes it possible for some of the people in that society to spend their time inventing new technologies that eventually make industrialization possible. Once industrialization is possible, societies need to be able to move their rural subjects to the cities and they need these workers to be able to quickly move from job to job, filling in wherever the new, fast-paced industrial economy needs them. Feudal peasants are tied to the land. Slaves are tied to particular masters. Workers in employer/employee wage relationships fit industrial capitalism better. So for Marx, the societies that more quickly moved beyond feudalism and slavery were able to industrialize faster, and the societies that moved more slowly needed to play catch-up or face the threat of being colonized by their competitors. Eventually, Marx thinks that capitalism will create new conditions that make even this employer/employee relationship untenable. Different Marxists have different views about when these “contradictions” will manifest or what they might look like. Lenin thought socialism was the only thing that could put a stop to the endless imperial struggle that was World War I. More recently, Socialists have suggested automation, climate change, and neoliberal acceleration might subject the system to new pressures the theorists of a century ago could not anticipate, fettering capitalism in new ways and unlocking the potential of new forms of socialism.

Marx’s theory is rather Darwinian. The societies with more efficient economic systems subjugate and exploit the societies that are less efficient. The only way to compete is for the less efficient systems to copy their more efficient counterparts. So for Marx, socialism can only happen if it is capable of beating capitalism at its own game, of being more productive and more efficient than capitalism is. Otherwise, the capitalists will subjugate socialist societies in much the same way they subjugate feudal and tribal societies. This means that the theory of history mandates that the conditions for socialism ought to first arise in the most advanced capitalist states, where capitalism is most fully developed. But no one ever tried socialism in the United States or Western Europe. Instead, it was tried in poorer societies, like Russia, China, and many post-colonial states. This wasn’t in keeping with the theory of history, and so in a very real sense the ostensibly “Marxist” projects of the 20th century weren’t really very Marxist.

Many socialists don’t like the theory of history. They want to argue that socialism is possible in a wider array of places, and they believe that ideas and culture have a larger role to play in political change than historical materialism maintains. The fact that socialism has yet to materialize in the richest and most powerful capitalist states casts doubt on the theory, and the Frankfurt School socialists and their successors—including Zizek—have argued that it is capitalist culture and ideology which obstructs socialism in the west. Some of these socialists position themselves as revisers of the theory of history while others position themselves as its opponents. But some materialists continue to argue that capitalism has yet to produce the changes in our technology, our environment, and our political institutions which will eventually precipitate its collapse. Why have employees when robots can do the work people could do? How can capitalism be the most productive system, if it results in worldwide flooding and the destruction of so many of the people and places it built? How can capitalism sustain us if it kills the public services we rely on it to fund? How can it make us feel safe and happy when it makes our jobs precarious?

It might have been interesting to hear what Peterson thinks about automation, or climate change, or the austerity, precarity, and atomization associated with our neoliberal hell world. But Zizek didn’t push him to talk about these things, and Peterson doesn’t appear to have done the reading that would be necessary for him to produce an interesting conversation about them. Writing in the 19th century, Marx was something of a prophet, a futurist—he was imagining where capitalism might take us. But too often, when I see people debate capitalism and socialism, they talk about the past. Imagine if, instead of winding down feudalism and abolishing it in 1660, the British made the kinds of arguments Peterson made in this debate. They might have pointed out that feudalism made Britain richer than it had ever been before, that urban living can be grim and brutal, that going to work in factories would rip families and communities apart. And besides, don’t we care about other things aside from economics? What about God and the church? Didn’t Saint Augustine tell us to reject the city of man? Peterson celebrates a system his own arguments would have defeated. As we stare down the barrel of climate change, anxious and afraid, alone and isolated, perhaps some of us wish it had been so.

Such arguments were made by conservatives in Britain for eons, before, during, and after the capitalist transformation. The Lord of the Rings is the film version, with Sauron and those industrious orcs standing in for capitalism, and that copy-cat Saruman attempting to destroy Sauron by adopting the same economic system and becoming just like him. Tolkien is nostalgic for an imaginary medieval world full of good kings, merry elves, and happy hobbits with full bellies.

In the old days, capitalists knew they stood on perilous ground, facing fierce opposition from both the values of yesterday and the values of tomorrow. As the capitalist system grows older, it forgets its own story—the way it clawed and tore its way through the old feudal aristocracy, with tea parties and guillotines. It is not natural. Like all things, it has a lifespan. A century ago, during the 1924 U.K. General Election, even the Liberal Party knew one day socialism lay ahead:

Are we still beyond it? And if not, what comes next? How will capitalism handle all the messes it has created for us in the next 100 years? These are the questions Zizek should have asked Peterson. But he seems too sad and broken to try anymore. What’s the point of a socialist who thinks capitalist ideology has us so thoroughly trapped that we cannot get out? Not so long ago, Zizek compared ideology to a pair of glasses that we must painfully remove to see the world clearly. These days he seems to think we’ve all had LASIK.

Peterson didn’t prepare. There was an opportunity. But Zizek was too busy complaining about identity politics and his status within academia to try. He’s the sort of aging quitter we all hope to never be.

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