In April, we published Brent Cooper’s review of Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right by Michael Brooks. Against the Web is published Zer0 books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing. We are delighted to feature an excerpt from “The Dragon Who Didn’t Do His Homework,” a chapter on the Intellectual Dark Web’s meteoric star, Jordan Peterson. – Eds.
The shifting demands of work, technology, and the economy have left many feeling confused and adrift, including some of those “succeeding” in the emerging paradigm. (At this point, one should ask whether working 90 hours a week to destroy the climate for Goldman Sachs is a “success” in any meaningful way.) Peterson is the perfect guru in the sense that his highly emotionally, pop-culture friendly, and middle-brow intellectualism, which is grounded in appeals to an imagined past, provides a perfect object of focus for this frustration. His style of communication is purely of the now, the conservative currents he embodies have the perfect bedtime story appeal; they provide a clear, yet individualistic and capitalistic, path forward for the alienated young man.
One of the most dangerous things the left can do is write off the demographic to which Peterson appeals because of its relative racial and gender privilege. For one thing, setting all else aside, young and angry white men have historically been a pretty dangerous group. They are the subset of the population most likely to become school shooters or join fascist movements. Far better that someone addresses their alienation in a constructive way and channels their justified frustration in a positive direction.
Analyzing Peterson’s shaky assertions, sloppy and eccentric thinking, and disturbing generalizations is important. However, this critique clearly does address the core emotional and psychological needs that he is speaking to as a public figure.
Like everyone else, young men are trying to muddle through life in a relentlessly complicated, unequal, and—to use one of Peterson’s favorite terms—chaotic era. All the IDW and IDW-adjacent figures mentioned in this book are spreading narratives that soothe general anxieties by smoothing over the complications of real life.
It’s easy to make lobster, crying, and cider jokes, and I’m certainly not above that. See the Cider Story with Joe Rogan video. Seriously, watch it. Why my God that was amazing. But we need to develop a deeper response than that. The cosmopolitan socialist synthesis that I’m arguing for aims to deal head-on with the anxieties, pain, and confusion that Peterson evokes.
To begin framing the left’s response, one must appreciate the degree to which Peterson is taking on the biggest macro-issues of our time and trying to solve them with the smallest self-help micro-solutions. Socialists can do better. We can start by analyzing the material roots of the uptick in alienation and despair that fuels Peterson’s book sales.
That doesn’t mean telling people not to care about spiritual fulfillment or personal meaning. It’s not an either/or.
What we should point out, though, is that increasing numbers of younger people in our late-stage capitalist economy are pushed into forms of precarious freelance pseudo-entrepreneurship. People aren’t having trouble maintaining relationships or waiting longer to have children because of Marxism or feminism or the existence of trans people; they are having trouble maintaining relationships or waiting longer to have children because they live lives defined by relentless anxiety and undercompensation. The loss of stability experienced by so-called “millennials” and “zoomers,” moreover, hasn’t even been compensated by a meaningful increase in autonomy. Whether you’re employed by General Motors or Uber, workplaces at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century remain sites of autocracy.
The example of Mondragon suggests that there’s a better way. Peterson claims to cherish the Western tradition, but he has no interest in applying the best of that tradition—the Enlightenment concepts of democracy and self-determination—to the workplace. Instead of asking people to simply clean their rooms while everything burns down around them, socialists must reimagine the oppressive and alienating systems that structure both the boardroom and the shop floor.
What about the issues of meaning and purpose that Peterson constantly evokes? I have no doubt that his willingness to speak so frankly to such fundamental parts of our lives is inseparable from his broader appeal. Again, though, Peterson’s approach is lacking, the themes he’s dealing with should not be dismissed but should be addressed in more integrated and sound ways.
The work of anthropologist Scott Atran and depth psychologist James Hillman provides potent contrasts to Peterson’s mythology-enhanced market fundamentalism.
Unlike Peterson’s dreck, Atran’s ethnographic research on terrorism has actually been used in real-world situations, and not just in thought experiments and podcasts. Namely, what he’s done is connect the rise and discourses of both jihadism and the alt-right to the alienation and lack of shared purpose endemic to hyper-consumerist societies like the United States of America and Saudi Arabia.
Consideration of this point leads us right back to the core contradiction in Peterson. Though he affirms that he’s deeply disturbed by the alienation, fragmentation, and disruption of cultural continuity brought about by late capitalism, he nevertheless expresses an enthusiastic commitment to “free markets.” This leaves him without any mode of response more useful than an addled combination of conspiracy theories and self-help advice about lobsters and chaotic women.
While I don’t agree with Atran about everything, he approaches the problem of male alienation from the correct starting point, recognizing that fostering “sacred meaning” and “group bonds” in liberal market societies is a defining challenge of our era. Indeed, this is a challenge that international socialists should take up as they work to transform society.
If you’re interested in contemporary Jungian psychology, you can do much better than Peterson. James Hillman is an archetypal psychologist who actually ran the Jung Institute in Vienna at one point in his career. He went on to co-author a brilliant book in the 1990s entitled We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse that offered a number of incisive points about modern day alienation.
We’ve had a hundred years of analysis, and people are getting more and more sensitive, and the world is getting worse and worse. Maybe it’s time to look at that. We still locate the psyche inside the skin. You go inside to locate the psyche, you examine your feelings and your dreams, they belong to you. Or it’s interrelations, interpsyche, between your psyche and mine. That’s been extended a little bit into family systems and office groups — but the psyche, the soul, is still only within and between people. We’re working on our relationships constantly, and our feelings and reflections, but look what’s left out of that… What’s left out is a deteriorating world.
I feel comfortable with Hillman’s arguments about mythology, archetypes, dreams, and spirituality because his analysis of these subjects is connected to a seriously grounded materialist understanding of how social and group practices form and influence psychological health. In an interview entitled, “You’re Not Paranoid—The Boss Really is Out to Get You,” Hillman used everything from air pollution to homelessness as potent examples of problems that should in fact cause us psychic anguish, but that psychology, with its focus on the self, will not solve. Though Hillman never denied the role individual development, psychological maturation, and spiritual growth play in making a person content, he understood that a pained response is often a natural response to a shockingly unequal and ecologically poisoned world. Hillman’s wasn’t a bedtime story, but a real challenge to reorient ourselves to face the dissociations and collective trauma with which we are constantly dealing. Both Hillman and my own mentor Suzin Green (a strategist whose work and analytic insight has helped me greatly) also deal in ambiguity and in discerning underlying dynamics and challenges instead of rigid and linear readings and interpretations of mythological texts.
Peterson’s artificial division between market mythology and reactionary conservatives will ultimately doom his project intellectually. Tragically, as a self-help source for confused and alienated people, he will likely continue to find a ready market for his wares unless we provide something more compelling. Wolff, Atran, and Hillman offer us a useful start, but it will be up to us to do the work.
Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right
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