Politics & Policy

Peterson vs. Zizek: Which Antidote to Chaos?

A monument to Karl Marx stands above his remains at the Highgate Cemetary in North London, England. (Michael Crabtree/Reuters)
At a much anticipated event, two intellectuals shot past each other.

Two eminent public intellectuals — Jordan B. Peterson, the Canadian psychologist, and Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher — sold out the Sony Centre in Toronto with their debate “Happiness, Capitalism vs. Marxism.” What followed had little to do with happiness and less to do with capitalism and Marxism, and with both speakers continuously emphasizing how much they agreed with one another, it scarcely qualified as a debate.

Peterson went first. In 30 minutes, he dismantled The Communist Manifesto, explaining why history ought not to be viewed primarily as a “class struggle.” He then cited the atrocities of the 20th century — and the Soviet Union in particular — as evidence of Marx being a “narcissistic thinker.” (Didn’t Marx worry what might happen if his theories turned out to be wrong?)

Of course, there’s far more to Marxism than The Communist Manifesto. But instead of using the opportunity to clarify what Marxism is, Zizek proceeded to deliver a sprawling (and fascinating) pre-written speech on contemporary politics. He observed the economic “success story” of China and Trump as the ultimate “postmodern president.” All of this was far more “complex,” admitted Peterson.

As some predicted, the two found agreement in many areas: identity politics, campus zealots, postmodernism, the limits of The Communist Manifesto, the excesses of capitalism. Peterson joked that, as Churchill said of democracy, capitalism is a terrible system — except for all the alternatives. Zizek also joked that he only uses the title of Communist to be provocative.

The question-and-answer session brought out their real differences. So much so that I was left wondering if the evening would have been livelier had Peterson and Zizek debated meaning (as opposed to happiness) and religion (as opposed to economic systems).

Certainly, this area is more in Peterson’s comfort zone. The week before, I attended his lecture at the Beacon Theater in New York City in which he walked the (highly enthusiastic) audience through some of the rules from his bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Pacing up and down, pausing occasionally with a pained facial expression, Peterson asked the crowd not to abandon their critical thought but to consider deeply whether what he was saying was “true.” He asserted that “all the evidence suggests that we live in a moral world,” that we ought to read history “as perpetrators” — especially since it is “the failure of the individual at the moral level that makes tyranny.” He also explained that when Nietzsche said, “God is dead,” he was warning us that most likely nihilism or totalitarianism would ensue.

Our job is to make sure they don’t. What many of Peterson’s critics have not grasped that his appeal is not primarily political. The 12 Rules for Life gives practical advice, offering hope to millions struggling without it.

By contrast, in his opening remarks at the Sony Centre, Zizek offered a different view:

Conservative thinkers claim that the origin of our crisis is the loss of our reliance on some transcendent divinity or higher value. If we are left to ourselves, if everything is historically conditioned and relative, then there is nothing preventing us from indulging in our lowest tendencies. But is this really the lesson to be learned from mob killing, looting and burning on behalf of religion? It is sometimes claimed that good or not, religion sometimes makes otherwise good people do bad thing . . . [but] only something like religion can make good people do bad things.

Later in the Q&A, Zizek latched on to an idea of G. K. Chesteron’s, that the God of Christianity has a uniquely atheistic moment when, on the cross, he cries out “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Peterson thought this was a good point. Though, of course, it’s not the end of the story.

Zizek is a self-described “radical pessimist.” And Peterson says he shares some of this pessimism (as all sensible people should). However, rather than support Marx’s theory of alienation, he believes in original sin and advocates for a kind of “tragic optimism” (as described in the psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl’s 1946 classic, Man’s Search for Meaning). Frankl’s recommendation of logotherapy — finding meaning in responsibility and in enduring unavoidable hardships — is very similar to Peterson’s prescription of an “antidote to chaos.” It would be very interesting to hear what alternative Zizek would support.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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