Jordan Peterson vs Slavoj Žižek part 2

Why should we listen to Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek? Because they are the people’s philosophers who have risen to our attention — not through academic or institutional posturing or marketing — but through having a voice. Both men represent the moment when the subculture becomes larger than the dominant culture, where YouTube matters more than CNN or Fox News. Peterson and Žižek are the voices that emerge when the gatekeepers have been bypassed and cheesy ‘messaging’ is finally dead. Both men raggedly bring what Žižek calls ‘the holy spirit’ —which just means real illuminated intelligence—to desperate times. Should we not listen to those who are animated by the holy spirit and ignore those who aren’t?

Peterson and Žižek differ in almost every conceivable way—it’s hard to imagine that they are even of the the same species. Ideologically speaking, Peterson is an apologist of capitalism and individualism, whereas Žižek stubbornly defends Marxism and communism—this makes them natural enemies in the jungle. However, despite being opposite personality types and thinkers, they have more in common than one might think. In my previous essay, I defended Peterson against Žižek’s very lame attacks—but there are also some things I like about Žižek. Both men are very right about some things —even if they are terribly wrong about others.

In this essay, I will try to ‘separate the wheat from the chaff’—rather than take sides. This will be—trigger warning—frustrating for those who are looking for a clear ‘winner’ or ‘ideological confirmation’. My view is that both men are salutary and useful in their own way. It is fine that Peterson defends tradition and promotes order, while Žižek is chaos embodied! If you need to ‘sort yourself out’, Peterson is your man, and if you want to break out of an intellectual straitjacket, Žižek is a tonic. For orienting axioms and practical wisdom, Peterson is very useful. Žižek will pull the rug out from under you. Peterson looks for pragmatic and durable life sustaining truths while Žižek is dialectical and creatively destructive.

Jordan Peterson is all about the compression of complex ideas into something of utility. His primary insights can be found in his more difficult work: Map’s of Meaning—the lectures, videos and subsequent book 12 Rules for Life are commentaries and elaboration on those early insights. Žižek, on the other hand, comes out with a meandering and dense 500 page book every couple of years.

Slavoj Žižek may be the greater writer than Peterson, but Peterson is a better orator and listener. The latter seems to embrace and love humanity and despise ideology, whereas the former enjoys his own philosophic ramblings more than people—Žižek says ‘everything is ideology’. Peterson is uncynically interested in wisdom and enlightenment, whereas Žižek says ‘oh gross yuck wisdom’ and hates anything that smells of self-improvement. However, Žižek seems essentially friendly, even if, like Woody Allen, he plays at being the neurotic, the clown, the misanthrope. And everybody know that Peterson is a mensch.

On the surface, the debate between Peterson and Žižek is between liberalism and Marxism, which are two sides of the same 19th Century materialistic coin. However, my thesis is that both are world-views outdated in the 21st Century and the internet age. Both liberalism and marxism have had their evil consequences—their bright and shadow sides. The nostalgia for a return to liberalism (Peterson) as well as a nostalgia for the return to socialism (Žižek), indicate that we have not yet come up with an adequate grand narrative for the times. (For possible grand narratives See Syntheism — Creating God in the Internet Age, with Jan Söderqvist (2014)

Marx and God

Peterson would like Karl Marx to go away, but Marx isn’t going away anytime soon. We need to reckon with the utopianism of Marx, just as we have to reckon with the individualism of Friedrich Nietzsche or the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud—those three dangerous thinkers of the 19th Century. Marx may have been used for evil ends in collectivist madness, just as Nietzsche was used to prop up fascism, and Freud was a forerunner of mass psychoanalytic quackery—but that doesn’t mean that there is no value to be found in these three giants.

Peterson’s fear of Marx seems to be a throwback to the cold war and the red scare—even if his Freudian analysis of totalitarian ideological possession is accurate. Karl Marx actually thought a social revolution was only possible in late capitalist societies, and didn’t promote revolution in Feudal ones like China and Russia. It was countries like England, Germany, and Northern Europe that would eventually become communistic, in Marx’s view. And true to Marx’s claims, the only societies today that can be genuinely described as having real socialist manifestations are social democratic countries like Canada, Sweden and Denmark—rather than China and Russia! Obviously Northern Europe is not the evil ‘postmodern neo-Marxist hell-hole’ that Peterson rails on about, despite the flaws of the secular welfare state and social justice warrior culture.

Today, most modern democratic countries, like it or not, are taking a communal turn; while the more individualistic ones, like the United States are beginning to fail. That is because, without a greater societal vision, the individual is bound to become an alienated, depressed, and potentially psychotic being. A quick peek at the opiate crisis and the obesity epidemic in America is a good illustration of this fact. This means that strengthening the individual—Peterson’s central theme—is not sufficient since individualism is the root of the problem!

Many people do not know that Marx actually supported the development of capitalism. He would agree with Peterson about capitalism’s ability to generate massive wealth and pull people out of absolute poverty. The trouble is: Peterson has no critique of late capitalism with its predatory economics and environmental rapaciousness.The acquisition and risk economy is obviously unsustainable. Non-rivalrous and cooperative economics will become more and more necessary as Marx predicted, especially in the face of the encroaching ecological apocalypse.

For all his faults, Marx was prescient of the age we are moving into—where information and cultural production—which once belonged to the elite, has become either cheap or totally free—even if a new pyramid of inequality is also arising. What if we are actually moving into a society of shared resources and the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has already started to happen quietly, without the need for hubristic revolutionary noise, bloodshed, or guillotines?

Furthermore, even if Marx said ‘religion is the opiate of the people’, it can be observed that Marxism has an underlying Christian structure. That is, Marx’s concern was the liberation of the meek, the poor, the working proletariat, the wage slave—and in creating a future ‘kingdom of heaven’. Is not the Christian ‘City of God’ the ultimate commune of ‘each according to his ability and each according to his needs’ to quote Marx’s famous phrase. Marxism is, without a doubt a quasi-christian philosophy of emancipation—albeit without the metaphysical depth. And capitalism and the sacred don’t make a very good mix.

Beyond individualism and collectivism

Peterson’s central insights concern the necessity of natural hierarchies of value. He has a vertical approach in other words—with the God principal on top and our deep pagan and biological roots below. Žižek, being a Marxist and Hegelian, is oriented horizontally: a dialectical process of radical egalitarianism. Like every good leftist, he seeks to upend the mystique of hierarchy. But Žižek’s weakness is a certain romantic collectivism and lack of vertical depth. Peterson, conversely, is deeply existential but doesn’t necessarily have a social, horizontal vision, focused as he is on the individual and not the commune.

Peterson is a critic of of ideological possession and warns of the dangers of totalitarianism. On the other hand, for good or ill, he is the evangelist of liberalism. Peterson is ideological, as we all are. His ideology is the ideology of individualism and personal responsibility. Žižek—who at least admits to being ideological is attached to a certain romantic revolutionary Marxism and a more collective theology. These are the areas in which both men can be criticised. As my friend Alexander Bard says: we need something beyond individualism and collectivism in the internet age. Peterson is too attached to individualism, Žižek to collectivism.

There is a paradox here in the fact that Peterson is a champion of the common man—perhaps because of his working class, rural background; whereas Žižek is an elitist who often expresses contempt for the common man. Here we have a libertarian who is leading the revolution of the proletariat like a Marxist revolutionary, and a communist who defends the ivory tower and prefers a good theory to action.

Is Peterson the hot headed revolutionary, despite professing to be a conservative? And is Žižek the conservative who professes to be a revolutionary, since he defends the consumerist bureaucratic society? Ironically enough, Žižek is the stubborn defender of old ideas, as the title of his book ‘In Defense of Lost causes’ suggests. And Peterson is trying to build a new educational utopia and save the world! Doesn’t this prove that we we live in an inverse universe, where left is right and up is down? Are these men the opposite of what they seem?

Both Žižek and Peterson embody the spirit of the times in some sense — paradoxically because they oppose it. Peterson is not afraid to earnestly talk about and embody ‘virtue’ and ‘character’ in a virtual world of unlimited possible perversion. Conversely, Žižek is not afraid to enjoy and confess ‘perversion’ against the rise of a new kind of unmerciful moral fundamentalism on the right and on the left. But maybe there is a hidden virtue in Žižek and a hidden perversion in Peterson (after all, his name is Jordan and not Jesus — and we are all complex beings with shadowy parts).

Jesus and the clown

The true thinker is bound to cause offense: Žižek offends more earnest and ideological leftists like Noam Chomsky, and Peterson offends the church-going right and the social justice warrior left. Thank goodness! We need to have our cherished truisms and ideologies offended by dangerous ideas at times. An intellectual war of ideas helps us to avoid actual war, which may explode if the resentments of the culture get too deep. Therefore, the fact that intellectual debates have become as big as sporting events is a good sign.

Another thing I like about both Žižek and Peterson is their embrace of humour, which is actually the best remedy to totalitarianism. In every decent society, a dirty joke at the local pub is good medicine. We need to feel ‘safe’ enough to speak freely without being attacked by Twitter mobs—to joke and flirt with each other without risking social castration. The lack of humour and subtlety in our present society is staggering. Žižek’s dirty political and bedroom humour is not only intelligent and ethical, it is a balm for the soul—and Peterson has always been best friends with comedians.

Žižek, despite his outward show as the ‘perverse old man’, betrays an inward virtue: his virtue as a philosopher and writer, for instance. I’ve read several of his fat tomes, and I can say reading him is a rich delight, full of rascally humour and insight. Peterson, conversely, is a delight to listen to: a masterful orator and teacher. I find him less accessible as a writer — even if Maps of Meanings is a flawed masterpiece. I wonder if Peterson’s primary archetype is oration and faith-healing, while his secondary is writing—whereas Žižek’s true gift is writing and his secondary archetype is … stand-up comedy and clowning around?

The virtue of clowning around and being forward with ones perversions and neuroses, is that nothing is hidden. But also, as the prime alchemical dictom has it “In sterquiliniis invenitur” — in filth it will be found. (Source: J Peterson, Maps of meaning. P.316) By ‘vice signalling’ rather than virtue signalling the conversation remains honest—by looking into the slime and muck of our own human personality, we can retrieve genuine gold. One of the reasons that Peterson and Žižek are so well liked (and also reviled) is that they are open about their weaknesses. And, so, too, we can criticise them and love them all the same.


If Peterson’s individualism is a flawed philosophy, and Žižek’s collectivism is just the other side of the same coin, what is missing and where can we go from where these men leave off? The answer may be in the Buddhist concept of sangha, or the christian concept of congregation. Membership in small, sacred communities, has always been the cure for too much individualism and too much collectivism. It is only in a small sangha that the real holy spirit can blossom, and the saint and the pervert can find true peace.


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Andrew Sweeny

Andrew Sweeny

Compressed scraps of angel melody, stories, essays, rants against reductionism, commands from the deep.

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