Order, but by Subordination: Jordan Peterson’s Reactionary Mind

Gerd Arntz, ‘Krise’ (1931)

What makes a conservative? What can possibly unify the conflicting and distinct ideologies of the right, from libertarian to fundamentalist to authoritarian?

‘Conservatism,’ Corey Robin answers in The Reactionary Mind, his 2011 collection of essays, ‘is the theoretical voice of animus against the agency of the subordinate classes.’ The ‘right’ has taken on many distinct forms since the French Revolution, when modern conservatism can be said to have begun; and, Robin claims, it is best understood as a reaction to modern forms of rebellion: the protest, the revolt, and, sometimes, the revolution. This, Robin argues, is the essence of conservatism:

Since the modern era began, men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors in the state, church, workplace and other hierarchical institutions … in virtually every instance, their superiors have resisted them, violently and nonviolently, legally and illegally, overtly and covertly. (The Reactionary Mind, 3)

The history of conservative politics is, to no small extent, the story of this march, and the reaction to it: conservatism is the riposte and answer to the demands of the ‘lower orders.’ According to Robin, conservatism is too flexible and heterogeneous to be identified with any movement, ideology, or dogma. Too fluid, contextual, and adaptable for static definition, it can be best understood as a historically situated defense of power against a specific demand made of it, using the means at hand to stave off the threat ‘from below.’

Sometimes these demands take the form of sedition, insurrection and revolution. More often, they are smaller, and more prosaic, but bring with them the haunting possibility of an overthrown order.

These unromantic and commonplace demands could be for better wages, working conditions, or hours; it could be for the right to vote, to order food, to travel, to be out after sunset; it could be for the right to say ‘no’ to a husband, a boss, a pastor; to take out a credit card, ride a bicycle, wear trousers, become a doctor, or love who you choose.

At every turn, conservatives have opposed these demands. This is what makes a conservative and identifies him through time, what groups together the contrasting and discordant groups that have formed, over the past several hundred years, ‘the right.’

Pro-segregation protest in Montgomery, Alabama.

The conservative’s answer to the challenge, and his defense of order, is often particular and historically contingent because the demands of the lower orders are personal and immediate, contextual and urgent, as much part of the ‘private life of power’ as a public or political concern.

The challenge can be so intimate as to come from within the home itself, as founding father John Adams came to realize when his wife asked him to “not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands” as he went about framing new laws for the fledgling American experiment; unnerved and reflecting on this new “spirit of insubordination” the American revolution caused, he worried there would be “no end of it” and that “all order would be dissolved” (The Reactionary Mind, 14-15).

This defiance cuts deeply for the conservative, because it so often occurs at the most basic level of interpersonal relations: the lunch counter owner forced to serve blacks, as they are “pushing in where they know so well they are not wanted,” as one letter to the editor put it; the manager’s roaming hands frustrated by sexual harassment legislation, moaning that ‘innocent flirting’ is now a ‘crime’; the husband who has to learn to do ‘women’s work,’ in his own household; the bakery owner who has to make a cake for a gay couple.

The conservative opposes, in real time, as they are proposed, miscegenation, integration, civil rights; the franchise, the union, the minimum wage; marriage equality, racial equality, gender equality; welfare programs, socialized medicine, public schooling; reparations, environmentalism, consumer protection.

The surest way to find a conservative, then, is to see what it is they oppose.

The conservative can dispute the goals of a movement, or just the tactics, as UNC Chancellor Blackwell did of the famous Greensboro lunch-counter sit-ins. Now a famous and central moment of the civil rights era, Blackwell claimed to agree with the intent, but not the execution:

….one must seriously ponder the question: “Was the sit-down demonstration, even though passively conducted, a wise move given the objectives of the participants?” My answer must be an unequivocal “No.”

Blackwell continues:

I have spent most of my life as a social scientist studying human behavior and community processes. How does it look under the social scientist’s microscope? In a place and at a time when tangible progress is being made in leveling many of the unequal places in democracy, I believe the common cause of better race relations has been set back by the events of the week.

The Greensboro Sit In, 1960

Had they?

Robin argues that conservatism truly finds itself in, and derives inspiration from, reaction to a challenge from below: far from defending a particular set of theses or embracing a permanent ideology, the conservative defends particular orders in real time, rousing themselves to fight on behalf of hierarchical, often private and intimate, regimes of rule.

Theirs is a defense motivated by a sense of loss — of status, standing, power, distinction. The conservative correctly sees that the freedom of others curtails one’s own ability to decide and act unimpeded.

The defense of hierarchy can be made on the basis of religion, economics, ‘common-sense,’ nature, natural law, racial superiority, military might, elitism, chauvinism, nationalism, or simple paternalism; these disparate, often conflicting rationales are united in that they militate against not just change, but change made to particular, specific orders pressed by those who are subordinate within them, “on the assumption, in part, that hierarchy is order” (The Reactionary Mind, 24). The conservative therefore characterizes egalitarian impulses as type of disorder, however articulated, whatever the context.

The conservative is quickly identified, then, by his experiencing of a demand for agency as a destabilizing loss that must be countered. Further, he is self-aware of this fact; The Reactionary Mind’s thesis is not psychological, nor does it claim that such reaction are driven by underground impulses we should uncover. This is a theoretical point; we should simply listen to what conservatives themselves have said in defense of their views.

For instance, Samuel Johnson was quick to admit that

We are all agreed as to our own liberty; we would have as much of it as we can get; but we are not agreed as to the liberty of others; for in proportion as we take, others must lose. (Boswell, Life of Johnson)

This sense of a zero-sum game is important to the felt experience of being challenged from below: it can present itself as an affront, an insult, a slight, a small alteration or change, but one foretelling a existential threat. The conservative’s identity is tied up in his freedom of action, and to constrain it is to tell him he has no longer a right to himself, and implies to him that all rights are to be ultimately negated in the activist’s programme.

Robin writes that the sense of ‘losing’ something in the course of political change becomes the motive for action, that is, reaction:

…conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner … the chief aim of the loser is not … preservation or protection. It is recovery and restoration. (The Reactionary Mind, 56)

Seen in this light, populism and conservative politics go hand in hand: the experience of loss is almost universal, and the promise of restoration practical and commonsensical. After all, since the “losses are recent,” as “the right agitates against reform in real time,” conservatism need not first prove that their politics are possible to implement (The Reactionary Mind, 56). For, up until recently, they were implemented.

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel (1562)

Having once possessed power, the conservative seeks merely to regain it, not create something entirely novel:

Unlike the reformer or revolutionary, who faces the nearly impossible task of empowering the powerless — that is, of turning people from what they are into what they are not — the conservative merely asks his followers to do more of what they have always done (albeit, better and differently). (The Reactionary Mind, 57)

The task of the conservative has, therefore, an advantage over the reformer, leveller, revolutionary, or liberal’s. The conservative knows, in advance, that it is achievable, having been achieved previously; the “counter-revolution,” Robin writes, “will not require the same disruption that the revolution” brings (The Reactionary Mind, 57).

On the other hand, however, failure is potentially catastrophic. Pro-slavery senator John C. Calhoun would write in the 1830s that human enslavement “has grown up with our society and institutions, and is so interwoven with them, that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people,” likening abolition to cultural genocide (The Reactionary Mind, 12).

The abolitionist cause would even threaten progress and civilization itself by overthrowing the natural social divisions that are required for order, industry, and peace. In Slavery a Positive Good, Calhoun says:

I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history … I fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South, against which these blind fanatics are waging war, forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions. (Calhoun, Slavery a Positive Good)

Compare with the underlying sentiment expressed with Samuel Johnson:

…mankind are happier in a state of inequality and subordination. Were they to be in this pretty state of equality, they would soon degenerate into brutes … all would be losers, were all to work to all: — they would have no intellectual improvement. All intellectual improvement arises from leisure: all leisure arises from one working for another.” (Bowell, Life of Johnson)

And Edmund Burke:

To enable men to act with the weight and character of a people … we must suppose them to be in that state of habitual social discipline, in which the wiser, the more expert, and the more opulent, conduct … the weaker, the less knowing, and the less provided with the goods of fortune. When the multitude are not under this discipline, they can scarcely be said to be in civil society … A true natural aristocracy is not a separate interest in the state, or separable from it. It is an essential and integral part of any large people rightly constituted. (Burke, Further Reflections on the Revolution in France).

Calhoun was defending slavery; Johnson was a staunch Tory who despised slavery and opposed the American revolution, hoping it would end with “English superiority and American obedience”; Burke viewed the French revolution as the greatest calamity in history. All believed subordination was a necessary component of society, and any challenge to it dangerous — though none were quite agreed on the specific form subordination should take.

For the conservative, then, the challenge ‘from below’ brings with it the specter of social disintegration. The specific challenge to power cannot be recognized as generally valid, for this establishes a malignant precedent for others to follow; if allowed to continue unchecked, the very bonds of subordination that make order possible will break, and chaos will follow.

Each new claim brings about an existential crisis; every new challenge to the ‘state of inequality and subordination’ brings with it dire prognostications of collapse, that, with the passage of time, might appear foolish to us, who have survived, and thrived, in the fruitful soils of social change.

Even a few short years ago, gay marriage was nothing less than a menace to the entire Christian cosmological order, yet another threat to civilization. Rob Dreher would write, in The American Conservative, that

Gay marriage signifies the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because it denies the core concept of Christian anthropology … gay marriage negates Christian cosmology, from which we derive our modern concept of human rights and other fundamental goods of modernity. Whether we can keep them in the post-Christian epoch remains to be seen. (Rob Dreher, Sex After Christianity)

What strikes the liberal or leftist as incremental reform, or a common-sense extension of the human rights framework is, for the conservative opposing the reform, nothing less that the creation of an “anti-culture,” where, “compelled by the logic of modernity and the myth of individual freedom,” we destroy “the last vestiges of the old order” (ibid).

This apocalyptic discourse follows in the wake of every movement, whether it be the environmentalists, consumer rights advocates, the Suffragettes, the Civil Rights movement, labor laws, and now even pronoun use. As I noted in my last medium piece, the demands of environmentalists drove Irving Kristol to write that

They are not really interested in clean air or clean water at all. What does interest them is modern industrial society and modern technological civilization, toward which they have profoundly hostile sentiments … they are at bottom rejecting a liberal civilization which is given shape through the interaction of a countless sum of individual preferences (Irving Kristol, Capitalism, Socialism and Nihilism).

Kristol was writing in the early 1970s; environmentalism, he claims, is no means of reform, it is nothing less than a rejection of ‘liberal civilization’. Once again, the challenge ‘from below’ — in this instance from ordinary citizens demanding controls on large companies — is resisted as a rejection of civilization itself. Conservative catastrophizing of this sort predicts an Armageddon that never comes to pass, yet it remains an essential part of the rhetorical baggage of the right.

The Great Smog of London (1952)

Robin’s book enlarges this initial thesis, considering Hayek, Nietzsche, Rand, Scalia, Trump and others are within the parameters of ‘conservatism’ so understood: roused in reaction to a specific threat from below; coupled to an experience of personal loss; tied to an identification of hierarchy with order itself; culminating in an interpretation of a particular challenge to a historically situated hierarchy as, necessarily, a challenge to ‘order’ as such. There is, often, too, a concern with the sublimity of the agon, of war, violence, and competition as the true proving grounds of man’s worth: this shows us the hierarchy is merited.

There are faults in Robin’s analysis. Conservatism becomes a spent force absent a credible threat, he avers, a prediction that sits ill with the thesis that conservatism arises to defend and extend hierarchy. If the right gains the upper hand on some issue, defeating its opponents on the left, there is always another: far from creating torpor, the victories of the right on economic issues led, simply, to renewed vigor on cultural issues. The rise of a new form of youth-led ethno-nationalism represents another such resurgence born of success elsewhere.

Far from becoming ideologically ‘incoherent,’ the right’s successes have led to a opening of new fronts, a process of reaction and rollback that could make old and settled issues, basic issues of civil rights, legal and political rights, salient again. No small amount of conservative commentators, from Anne Coulter to Jesse Lee Peterson, have suggested, not quite in jest, that giving women the right to vote might have been a mistake.

Others might reject the psychologizing tendency of his argument, or claim Robin has gotten it backwards: it is the left, not the right, that harbors authoritarian tendencies, that multiplies hierarchies, that is motivated by resentment and reaction. The ‘demands’ from the lower orders are agitations of the weak who have not succeeded in a difficult and competitive world: theirs is a politics of reaction; the conservative simply exalts the difficult truths governing a hard world.

This last criticism imports a moralizing note to what could be seen as a descriptive project. Either way, the conservative defends hierarchy — whether he is right or wrong to do so is a separate question. We can certainly admit that sometimes, the conservative is right. What we should ask ourselves is whether Robin’s criteria, by themselves, are predictive.

An excellent case study might be current leftist bête noire and best-selling author Jordan Peterson, who claims to reject the mantle of conservatism. However, his writings and arguments, positions and opinions place him within the spectrum of ordinary right-wing conservatism, on issues from climate change to economics to immigration. If Robin is right, the surest clue will be in Peterson’s handling of issues relating to hierarchy and power.

A quick sense of Peterson’s politics can be gleaned from his comments on feminism. Like many conservative commentators before him, for Peterson ‘feminism’ is nothing less than a plot to subvert and destroy civilization. He has said in an interview that Women’s Studies pose the same sort of threat as Kristol’s environmentalists or Dreher’s gay marriage advocates:

Go online, go look at ten women’s studies websites. Pick them at random. Read them. They say ‘western civilization is a corrupt patriarchy right down to the goddamned core. We have to overthrow it.’ (C2C Journal)

The interviewer then says: “Which means democracy, which means liberalism, which means human rights.” Peterson responds, agreeing: “It means the whole thing. The whole edifice.” (The best Peterson can do in his recent book, 12 Rules for Life, is point to the Queen’s University Gender Studies department, singling out that it “centers activism for social change” as a damning indictment).

This level of catastrophic alarmism is not what makes Peterson distinct; it is, in fact, what makes him a run of the mill conservative.

Peterson then weighs in similarly on a number of topics, surmising that they form a comprehensive political program that shares “structural similarities with the Marxist ideas that drove Soviet Communism,” which he cannot support “because I know where that leads,” which is to say, mass murder (ibid) — later going on to accuse the Canadian Prime Minister of supporting a “murderous equity doctrine” for tweeting in support of the Women’s March.

For Peterson, and in line with Robin’s thesis, the issue can be reduced to the importance, necessity, and naturalness of hierarchy. In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson writes that hierarchy is ordained by nature:

…the dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it may appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real … it’s not even a human creation … it is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment … we … have lived in a dominance hierarchy for a long, long time. We were struggling for position before we had skin, or hands, or lungs, or bones … dominance hierarchies are older than trees. The part of our brain that keeps track of our position in the dominance hierarchy is therefore exceptionally ancient and fundamental. (Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, 44).

His favorite case study is the lobster, a creature with a ‘dominance hierarchy’ that is largely reflective of the animal’s neurochemistry. The lobster was chosen by Peterson because it is ‘ancient’ and thus disproves contemporary claims that hierarchies are social constructs.

It does so in a twist on the classic naturalistic fallacy:

The ‘order’ within the chaos and order of Being is all the more natural the longer it has lasted. This is because nature is what selects, and the longer a feature has existed the more time it has had to be selected — and to shape life. (ibid., 44)

As has been pointed out, on almost every point of technical detail, Peterson’s claims about lobsters are false or misleading. Our most recent common ancestor with contemporary lobsters diverged 700 million years ago, before any central nervous system could possibly have evolved, while Peterson stresses an impossible ‘continuity’ in an alleged ‘conserved’ system; serotonin is a ubiquitous family of molecules with several functions that is species-dependent, which Peterson treats as invariant; low serotonin in human can increase aggression, while decreasing it in lobsters, a fact Peterson simply ignores; the effects of ‘neurological modulators’ varies tremendously from species to species, leading one review paper to conclude that

…those wishing to extrapolate the roles and effects of exogenous neurological modulators in one species may find it more difficult to discern those occurring in other species (The biological effects of antidepressants on the molluscs and crustaceans: A review).

But crustaceans have driven Peterson’s critics to distraction. The argument is simpler: if hierarchies exist in nature, then ‘social constructionism’ is false. They do so exist in nature. Therefore, ‘social constructionism’ is false.

More importantly, we can ignore any public policy recommendations its proponents present, since the claim is not only false, but part and parcel of a pernicious rejection of the very idea of ‘truth’:

Social constructionism is the doctrine that all human roles are socially constructed. They’re detached from the underlying biology and from the underlying objective world … [it] contains an assault on biology and an implicit assault on the idea of objective reality. (C2C Journal)

By pointing to biology and neuroscience, Peterson brings a modern, ‘scientific’ twist to the old doctrines of ‘natural law’ that also saw hierarchy inscribed in nature. Burke disparaged the Lockean social contract, preferring

…the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures each in their appointed place (Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France).

Burke goes on to condemn those who ignore this natural order keeping ‘each in their appointed place,’ and who would,

…on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles (Ibid).

These are Peterson’s arguments, too: modern movements of political change are speculating on the possibility of improvement, but in doing so tear apart the social fabric, because they ignore our biological and neurological natures.

Today’s appeal to neuroscience and yesterday’s to the divinely-created natural world reflect the respective intellectual biases of their time. Peterson’s use of neurological research trades on the authority of neuroscience, to which the public defers:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. (The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations).

The ‘underlying logic’ of the lobster account of hierarchy in humans is wildly implausible, but neuroscience talk is particularly prone to abuse, and this explains, in part, why these arguments should gain such traction.

Peterson’s appeal to naturalism in the opening chapter of 12 Rules for Life could easily have appealed to our closer genetic cousins, such as bonobos or even baboons, where much of behavior is learned. One arresting example occurred in a tribe of baboons where aggressive males who had taken to foraging garbage were suddenly ‘wiped out’ by tuberculosis:

Reports exist of transmission of culture in nonhuman primates. We examine this in a troop of savanna baboons studied since 1978. During the mid-1980s, half of the males died from tuberculosis; because of circumstances of the outbreak, it was more aggressive males who died, leaving a cohort of atypically unaggressive survivors. A decade later, these behavioral patterns persisted. Males leave their natal troops at adolescence; by the mid-1990s, no males remained who had resided in the troop a decade before. Thus, critically, the troop’s unique culture was being adopted by new males joining the troop. (A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission).

Given our genetic distance from lobsters, an identical form of argument, towards a radically different conclusion, could have been drawn from these baboons; or again perhaps from eusocial insects, from the symbiotic relationship between coral polyps and algae, or from the myriad forms of social cooperation found in birds, mammals, and even amoeba.

If nature is ‘what selects,’ and ancient selection translates to a more real type of ‘order’ in Being, then the cooperation found in Dictostelium is ‘more real’ than the domination rituals of lobsters: this species of soil amoeba “exhibits altruism during both asexual and sexual cycles of its life history,” and our common ancestor is far deeper in evolutionary time (The cooperative amoeba: Dictyostelium as a model for social evolution).

Importantly, however, all these arguments would be equally bad. There is no straight line from what is ‘natural’ to what we ought to do, or not do (as Rousseau wrote, “we do not know what our nature permits us to be,” (Rousseau, Émile)). This is for the simple reason that ‘natural’ generalities, even if they were true, lead us to no social or political particulars.

In making this argument, Peterson’s critical target are those ‘social constructionists’ who allegedly believe that all hierarchies and social structures are the recent product of ‘the patriarchy.’ However, as Peterson explains, ‘social constructionism’ is a facade, professed in bad faith, solely in order to justify the abolition of “all outcome inequalities,” the ultimate goal of his political opponents (12 Rules for Life, 324), though no citations are given for this rather interesting claim concerning the ultimate goals of the ‘left.’ No doubt it would come as a surprise to many.

Nevertheless, in order to bring about this purported goal, “society must be altered … until all outcomes are equitable,” but such alterations, warns Peterson,

“…are often pushed past any reasonable limit before they are discontinued. Mao’s murderous cultural revolution should have taught us that” (ibid., 324, 326).

Beyond these pronouncements of Peterson’s, it is difficult to pin down who exactly is making these sweeping constructionist arguments, or how they intend to achieve their sanguinary objectives. Outside of some comments on the gender pay gap, no specific policy proposals are discussed in 12 Rules for Life; and Peterson barely cites the ‘post-modernists’ or ‘Marxists’ he claims to oppose, despite their apparent and deep threat to civilization. We do get a short section entitled “Post-Modernism and the Long Arm of Marx,” where Peterson specifically singles out Horkheimer and Derrida as ‘Marxists,’ juxtaposing his interpretation of their work with lurid accounts of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

To give a sense of the discourse here, Peterson writes that one architect of the Cambodian genocide, Khiem Samphan, studied under the “French intellectuals” of the Sorbonne, claiming that he put their ideas ‘in practice.’ But Samphan studied economics, receiving his PhD in 1959. His dissertation, it is true, was influenced by ‘dependency theory,’ a Marxist-influenced view on international economic relations, but had nothing to do with ‘post-modernism.’

Derrida only joined the Sorbonne the next year, in 1960, and had published next to nothing by that point. The one idea Peterson links to post-modernism, a distinction between ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ labour, is due to Adam Smith, not Karl Marx (in The Wealth of Nations, book 2, chapter 3: “There is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed; there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour”; Marx, in fact, criticized the distinction).

This is typical of Peterson’s rhetorical strategy, which triangulates between naturalistic defenses of the status quo, fear-mongering about the influence of Marxists, and long, tremulous descriptions of the horrors of Communist rule.

What these rhetorical devices are in service of is never quite clear; a general opposition to ‘activism’ can be gleaned, especially when demands are pressed by women or minorities, but outside Bill C-16, no substantive policy issues are discussed, and no contemporary writers on racial or feminist issues cited: not Ta-Nehisi Coates, not bell hooks, not Cordelia Fine.

When discussing such fraught issues as ‘white privilege’, (especially while casting it as ‘collective guilt’), for instance, one might expect a passing reference to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, or even the Department of Justice’s Ferguson Report, which lays out the systemic problems in incarceration and policing that motivates on-the-ground activists to take action, and have played a significant role in directing and shaping the discussion. But Peterson is either ignorant of these works, or ignores them because they do not fit the narrative of resentful ‘post-modern Marxists’ working to undermine society.

Indeed, he seems to not understand the claims of his opponents. On the topic of ‘patriarchy,’ he believes it is a knock-down argument to point out that several men have, in fact, contributed to the historical progress of women (12 Rules for Life, 315): “in what manner,” he asks, rhetorically, “were these practical, enlightened, persistent men part of a constricting patriarchy?”

Peterson’s mistake is to surmise that systemic or collective problems logically imply individual guilt. In fairness, this is a mistake often made among young leftists, who take to the internet to morally condemn particular individuals, rather than focus on the structures that have contributed to harmful or wrong action. But a mistake it is. The most enlightened man in 1840 or 1940 still lived in a society that denied women the right to vote, own property, or refuse sex, simply because she was a woman, while he could do these things, simply because he was a man. That man should not be teleported here, across time and space, to stand trial; nor does any white person today bear the guilty judgment of his ancestor’s slaves. These are not the issues we should grapple with.

Instead the question is: if, for centuries, a substantial part of the populace stood outside the social contract —for instance, refused mortgages, denied schooling and economic opportunity, subject to racial terror and discrimination — what are the demands of justice? Not the accusations of punishment due, not the finger-pointing of guilt — what does justice demand? What, if anything, is owed? What can we do to salve the wound? Do we owe nothing to each other? Not as guilty party and victim, but as a society?

As a professor, if I fail half my students on a whim, but promise to stop, has justice been rendered? Would they not ask that I re-evaluate their work?

The closest Peterson comes to a substantive discussion of public policy along these lines is perhaps when he says that “we don’t know how to redistribute wealth without introducing a whole host of other problems,” with no further discussion (321), as if we can learn nothing from the inequality-adjusted human development index: Norway, Iceland, and Denmark, for instance, might have some policy suggestions that one could learn from. Peterson’s sole comment is that “the Swedes … push equality to its limit,” (ibid.) but we find no comparative analysis of outcomes — nor a guide to how malignant cultural Marxism has influenced its politics.

No, for Peterson, the gist of the affair seems to be that contemporary activists are reality-denying ‘Marxists’ who are leading us to the gulag; their modus operandi is to claim that the hierarchies they criticize are confabulations, ‘social constructs’ through and through, created by awful white men, each one culpable. But Peterson knows better: these orders are ancient and natural, and we are wise to let them be.

‘Social constructionism,’ to the extent that this is a existent position, certainly does not claim that the very concept of ‘hierarchy’ has no existence outside the last few thousand years of European history. Peterson is unable to produce a quote or reference to this thesis, or how it is a specific claim of post-modernists, which is not surprising, since it is not. In the entire book, he produces exactly one quote from his nemesis Derrida: “il n’y a pas d’hors texte,” surmising from it that post-modernists believe “there are no facts” (320).

Otherwise, Peterson relies entirely on the work of Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism, a work that has little currency outside Objectivist circles, to make bald assertions about the alleged theses of ‘post-modernist’ philosophy — a school of thought that has never held a dominant position in Anglo-American philosophy departments in any event.

There are many who explore the nature of ‘social construction’; they are spread across several disciplines, from anthropology to sociology to political science (all of which, per Peterson, are ‘corrupt’); because, plainly, many things are socially contingent and evolve over time. A cursory examination of men and women’s fashion over the last few hundred years bears this out. The question isn’t whether, but how much; and what goes for fashion goes for ‘hierarchy’ as well.

The fact is that over history, human hierarchies have shifted and changed; orders have been claimed as ‘natural’ or inevitable and then evaporated, or were dismissed, challenged, re-interpreted, and modified; to return again and be dismissed again; resisted by men and women and then re-affirmed by other men and women.

At which point in human history should we dig in and say this is the Lobster’s hierarchy, the natural one? Should it be 1861, when Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declaimed that

Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. (Alexander Stephens, Cornerstone Speech)

Or perhaps before women had the right to vote and own property? Or further in the past? When? And why? Because “it” is natural?

Peterson’s argument is curiously ahistorical: the lobster could be presented to stand astride history and defend ‘order’ in 2018 or 1820. The point is not that Peterson defends slavery (he does not), or is opposed to women’s suffrage (he is not)— rather, his curt and summary dismissal of historical oppression, coupled with a defense of the ‘naturalness’ of hierarchy, could be used verbatim in any time period to deny the claims made by women, minorities, gays and lesbians, workers, all of whom have legitimately pressed their grievances in the past. Today we acknowledge that the civil rights movement, for instance, was moral, justified, and legitimate; in its time, the movement was not just subversive but dangerous, with some voices on the far-right, such as the John Birch Society, outright blaming the unrest on ‘communist agitation.’

What conceptual resources does Peterson have to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate demands, legitimate and illegitimate hierarchies?

It won’t do to simply claim that those demands pressed by alleged ‘Marxists’ are the dangerous, invalid ones; for Peterson sees Marxists everywhere. This places him within the ordinary currents of reactionary conservatism: protesters against racial integration in the 1950s carried signs proclaiming ‘race-mixing is communism,’ and accused Martin Luther King, Jr. of being an agent of the Soviet Union. Similar claims about climate change and environmentalist are prevalent today; the New Deal and the labour movement was similarly attacked as an “infiltration of government, the unions, and churches by ‘reds.’”

We should treat all these claims as having roughly equal merit.

Alexander Stephens

What is required in any serious discussion of ‘hierarchy’ is, first, a sophisticated historical acknowledgement of the shifting sands of power among and between human beings, and, second, a coherent moral and political account of what constitutes a legitimate expression of power.

This question strikes at the very heart of human freedom and existence. Peterson’s lobster-focused naturalism denies the role self-reflection plays in the human condition. It suggests, instead, a serotonin-mediated necessary bondage to lower instincts, lower impulses, to the flesh itself, with no escape, to be ruled — save the few, naturally ordered, whose will bring mortification on the flesh of others, and which is thus their destined burden: to rule.

In other words: A defense of slavery on the basis of lobsters would be, ex hypothesi, ridiculous. And so, mutatis mutandis, for other hierarchies. Hierarchies are always particular relations between individuals and groups situated in a historical context and culture. They are scarcely illuminated, let alone defined and justified, by an appeal to neuroscience, or, to take up Peterson’s other interest, to Jungian myth.

These aspects have been better addressed elsewhere, but the mystical elements of Peterson’s thought are no less pernicious than his neuroscientific naturalisms. He trades in bizarre and simplistic forms of dualistic essentialism, tagging a dichotomy between “order” and “chaos” and then identifying these two poles with “men” and “women,” respectively: the subtitle of his book, “an antidote to chaos,” translates, then, to a cure for the poison that is woman.

When critically pressed on this issue, he leverages his naturalism to the defense of his mythopoetics: such dichotomies are part of the primordial ordering mythologies of the human mind, a shared stock of beliefs which are required for society to operate. To challenge them is akin to challenging any hierarchy: it is, again, to destroy the preconditions for civilization itself.

Some of Peterson’s popular appeal, apart from his status as self-help guru, is also a simple continuation of a peculiar form of entertainment available on the age of the internet: a ritualistic form of intellectual disparagement, typically in video form, where a hapless opponent is handily dismantled by a smarter, superior interlocutor. In it, we find our own beliefs vindicated, and our opponents justly trounced.

The genre probably found its beginnings in ‘New Atheist’ videos featuring a articulate and righteous Christopher Hitchens verbally overwhelming a overconfident religious figure, to the delight of the audience. Peterson videos likewise often feature him debating students, activists and news personalities, similarly framed: he ‘destroys’ opponents, or ‘crushes’ a debate, leaving opponents ‘speechless.’

There is not much more substance to Peterson’s politics. It is no accident that such soft targets are chosen: a young campus activist, on video, having a strong emotional reaction, makes for better theater than reading a book at home, and reviewing it at length, with proper scholarly composure. But theater it is — a play of reaction, exaggerated gestures for those sitting far at the back.

On this stage, Peterson exemplifies Corey Robin’s analysis of the conservative: reacting to change, Peterson weaves a myth of order imperiled by dark, chaotic forces. Myths, however, are little more than common superstitions in fancy attire, to be retired and studied as products of their time.




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Nicholas McGinnis

Nicholas McGinnis

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