Slavoj Zizek Vs Jordan Peterson: An Assessment

I wrote a preview for this debate weeks ago, so here’s my (I suppose) informed assessment of how it went. Spoilers: it went very much like I expected but, of course, not exactly in the same manner.

I anticipated three main themes for the debate:

-Marxism and the Frankfurt School

-Jung and the Jungians

-Political correctness as a sickness of the left

In the event, there was quite a bit of discussion about the first and the third topic, almost no reference to the second. The fact that this was the case is largely a reflection of the good-humored, hands-off nature of the encounter.

Fundamentally, the debate was bloodless because Zizek and Peterson are alike in many ways. They’re both excellent debaters who rise to the occasion when challenged, and still manage to play within the accepted boundaries of discourse, and so none of them really poked too hard, out of fear of the other’s comebacks.

At the same time, both Zizek and Peterson are also alike in that they are both celebrity thinkers who have been cast off by the ruling ideology’s chattering classes: Zizek is widely seen as insufficiently committed to the Left’s Kulturkampf, while Peterson is seen as dangerously friendly to the deplorables and the alt-right.

They both make tons of money off traveling around the world dispensing wisdom — especially Peterson, who has this North American knack of turning everything into profitable business — while able to publicly lament the fact that they are blacklisted by the likes of CNN, The Guardian and the London Review of Books.

It’s no wonder that they couldn’t really come to blows.

As I explained in my preview, to me the core disagreement between Zizek and Peterson is (was) that Peterson has insisted on blaming the evils of Political Correctness on Cultural Marxism and the Frankfurt School (*). However, he seems to have done a lot of Zizekian reading over the last few months, and convinced himself that Zizek is right that Political Correctness is not the fault of left-behind Commie cells, but a fundamental component of modern capitalism with cosmetic progressive characteristics.

In fact, in his very last public appearance before meeting Zizek, Peterson didn’t use the expression “cultural marxists” (and replaced it with “quasi-marxist postmodernists”) in a Heritage Foundation talk, as a Reddit Zizekian pointed out. I can’t say with any certainty that this is the first such instance, but I’ve followed Peterson pretty closely for years, and I’d put my money on that.

In the most contentious moment of the whole debate, Zizek challenged Peterson to name mythical marxists who are behind the PC scourge, and Peterson did cite statistics, but fell short from naming names because he very well knows they consider themselves marxist, while they really are not.

With this disagreement gone, and Zizek preferring not to engage Peterson on the sensitive topic of Karl Jung (whom Peterson reveres, and Zizek dislikes) and a couple other subjects on which he kept his cards close to his chest, things were smooth and amiable.

There’s a sense in the pro-Jordan Peterson community that the professor wasn’t at his best while debating Zizek. But there is no real hostility against Zizek in this community, rather a sort of puzzlement regarding Zizek and his fame as an unconventional Marxist, so that’s not perceived as a big deal. Note that this comment about Peterson praising Zizek as a “character” was highly upvoted.

I noticed that Peterson didn’t really get any clear openings from Zizek. An example: when Peterson raised one of his strongest points, and criticized those who seek equality of outcome, claiming as he often does that this is a key, and wrongheaded, component of the modern Leftist consensus, Zizek agreed with him. Not only that: Zizek said that, in his reading, marxist doctrine can never be supportive of equality of outcomes, only of equality of opportunities.

As Bradley Kaye of the Zizek Studies Facebook group pointed out, it was remarkable that “Zizek in a public forum with many alt-right folks undoubtedly watching proclaiming ‘Marx explicitly denounces equality as a bourgeois sentiment. Communism for him was not egalitarianism. He says this in the Critique of the Gotha Program’ – giving citations is a good thing, ha!”

Peterson returned the favor during a another moment of potential dispute, when Zizek went into his now-traditional assault against the role of Zen Buddhism in justifying and promoting Japanese militarism and human rights violations. Peterson, rarely one to shirk from a debate defending the role of religion and tradition in modern society, did agree with Zizek’s points without offering a challenge, perhaps because it was late in the debate and time was running out.

This was still a surprising concession to me, since I recently listened to a long, eight-hour debate between Peterson and Sam Harris, spanning three countries, and four or five Youtube videos (starting here), that was essentially a conservative defense of religion against Harris’ progressive criticism.

I’m not sure I’d recommend anyone to listen to the whole Peterson-Harris discussion. It wasn’t bad at all, but sounded more like an earnest encounter between educated representatives of the center-left and a center-right of the kind you’d see in the 1990s, and not very representative of 2019 currents of thought and propaganda. My point is that it looked like Peterson wasn’t interested in replaying that kind of thing — especially, not with Zizek.

Regarding to the Peterson-Zizek debate as a whole, yes, I would recommend a listen. First of all it’s much shorter than Peterson Vs Harris. It also helps to put Zizek’s ideas and role in modern political discussion in context: generally speaking, I find that Zizek is one of the world’s most misunderstood people, up there with all moody teenagers that the world just don’t get.

A lot of people have noticed that most debates between supposed representatives of the Left and the Right are won by rightists, not because they are smarter or better educated (stats tell us they are not) but rather because rightists know all the leftists’ arguments, and the opposite is not true.

This is because most leftists, especially prominent ones, have no idea about the debates in the Right, and couldn’t tell a neoconservative from an alt-righter if their life depended on it. The explanation is simple: leftists are, as a rule, warmly embraced by the West’s ruling ideology and in positions of absolute dominance in academia, mass media and the intellectual class in general, so they need not worry about the stuff in rightists’ minds (**). They just live in happy, blissful, justifiable ignorance of the Right — as Zizek himself said in the debate, these people are always ready to call anyone they dislike Fascist and wait for the hordes to tear this person to pieces.

Zizek is a total exception to this rule. Rightists are always shocked when confronted by a leftist who is not a walking-and-breathing let’s-abolish-the-patriarchy meme; a leftist who knows about Kevin MacDonald’s Culture of Critique, easily one of the most influential alt-right texts out there. So Peterson, despite his preparation, was wrong-footed. Thus, his protestations that he wasn’t certain that Zizek is a Marxist at all, his praise for Zizek’s provocations, and his absolutely earnest question: why don’t you declare youself Zizekian, Slavoj, instead of Marxist?

I liked the way Zizek defended his interpretation of marxism (***), and this guy did too; but not everyone. The Philosophical Salon had a dismissive review of the debate, in which it incorrectly assumes that Zizek just wanted to expose Peterson’s fundamental hollowness; Peterson may be naive and old-fashioned, but he’s not hollow.

The Guardian’s opinion piece was drawn along similar lines. This was just moronic, like assigning a report about a cricket match to somebody who has a passing knowledge of baseball. And yet the one article that I found really clueless was published in Jacobin Magazine, where most writers (I suspect) couldn’t tell a Jacobin from a Facebook PR manager. The writer found Zizek insufficiently marxist and too nice to Peterson.

This story contains the now-standard PC denunciation of Zizek for not being supportive of the newfangled leftist doctrine of open borders. Which is fine, but then you shouldn’t call for an authentic defender of Marxism to take Zizek’s place in the debate, since Karl Marx himself never expressed support for anything remotely similar to open borders.

I truly am tired of hearing from alleged progressives claiming that they are Marxists AND for open borders. You can’t be both! Marx often argued that the importation of low-paid Irish immigrants to England forced them into hostile competition with English workers. He saw it as part of a system of exploitation, which divided the working class and which represented an extension of the colonial system. Rings a bell?

This is what Marx wrote in an April 9, 1870 letter for Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, from “Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Selected correspondence,” Progress Publishers, 1975, pp. 220-224:

As for the English bourgeoisie, it has in the first place a common interest with the English aristocracy in turning Ireland into mere pasture land which provides the English market with meat and wool at the cheapest possible prices. It is likewise interested in reducing the Irish population by eviction and forcible emigration, to such a small number that English capital (capital invested in land leased for farming) can function there with “security”. It has the same interest in clearing the estates of Ireland as it had in the clearing of the agricultural districts of England and Scotland. The £6,000-10,000 absentee-landlord and other Irish revenues which at present flow annually to London have also to be taken into account.

But the English bourgeoisie has also much more important interests in the present economy of Ireland. Owing to the constantly increasing concentration of leaseholds, Ireland constantly sends her own surplus to the English labour market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class.

And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

It’s not hard to realize that the most-commonly cited example showing the alleged dependence of advanced 21st century economies on undocumented labor is fruit- and vegetable-picking, truly back-breaking work that I did for a while (all of nine hours, before I quit in disgust) in Queensland, Australia. The other? The nerve-wrecking shortage of cheap nannies and gardeners, hardly a working-class complaint.

You can see that open borders promoters are truly concerned about the plight of the landholders and top managers who can only afford to buy beach-houses if they pay  Mexicans with fake papers less than the minimum wage. Heck, I feel for them too. Just don’t pretend that’s a Marxist stance, and I’ll have no problem with you. If you’re looking for a true Marxist who is an open borders supporter, you will have to check with the admirers of the Marx Brothers, or the Koch brothers.


*This is, incidentally, a key alt-right tenet, so it also connects Peterson to the people that mainstream media wouldn’t touch with a beanpole.

**I’m using the conventional, 20th century labelling for Left and Right, which I believe is nowadays obsolete, a sort of legacy politics that blinds most people from the actual emerging divide in politics between nationalism and globalism, as I explained here.

*** “I don’t believe in progress. Let’s take the Marxist utopia at its most radical. Yes, we will somehow manage to overcome capitalism, there will be a new society of — of what? How do we know there will not be even some other type of greater horrors there, and so on? I absolutely try to disassociate social emancipation and so on, from any of these ideas, from some kind of harmonious society of collaboration, of peace, and so on and so on. (So people are just evil? The questioner asks) Not evil. What is evil? It wouldn’t fit. You know this American constitutional formula, right? Pursuit of happiness. I think of the great theorist of social paradoxes, Paul Watzlawick. He wrote a book called ‘Pursuit of Unhappiness.’ I literally believe in this. I think that we humans are masters in how to sabotage our happiness. We want to be maybe almost happy, but not really happy. We don’t really want what we desire. That’s the basic lesson of psychoanalysis.’ Like the effort to win in computer games but not winning so you can keep playing?” Slavoj Zizek, Salon interview 2015.



About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
This entry was posted in Greatest Hits, Zizekiana and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Slavoj Zizek Vs Jordan Peterson: An Assessment

  1. pauladkin says:

    A nice article, thank you. But your emphasis on the impossibility of a Marxist being in favour of open borders is a curious blast of hot air. Are you saying that Marx’s writings had nothing to do with Marxist Internationalism? How could that be? Is this is a kind of Marxist puritanism that you are professing, much like that of a Christian in the military cannot be a Christian; or that a capitalist using any form of public services cannot be considered a capitalist?


    • David Roman says:

      To some extent, yes, it’s a return of Marxism to Marx. But how can one be Marxist while explicitly contradicting Marx? Open Borders is impossible to square with anything in the Marxist corpus: Marx is looking to create a classless society and, as Zizek often argues, what we have is (relatively) classless societies with a very strong middle class that are importing a new lumpenproletariat so that progressive activists have a public for their preaching and the wealthy have maids and fruit-pickers. And what about the effect on the countries that export that lumpenproletariat? The unifying characteristic of countries like Morocco, Mexico and Afghanistan is entrenched elites very closely connected to capitalist markets, happy to see potential revolutionaries (young, strong men) leave for Germany to work as taxi drivers and sidewalk sweepers. Open Borders is strongly anti-Marxist.


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