Jordan Peterson claims to slay sacred cows and challenge prevailing orthodoxies. But what he’s really offering is a minor twist on tried-and-true conservatism — defending existing hierarchies and opposing the democratization of political and economic life.
I’ve written quite a bit about Jordan Peterson in the past, to which many leftists have responded, “Why bother?” And it’s sometimes easy to see why. Peterson’s eccentric appeals to dragons of chaos and Pinocchio, his intense rhetoric about the evils of “post-modern neo-Marxists” he apparently hasn’t read, and his tendency to chum around with “I Would Have a Huge Vagina” types like Dave Rubin are all red flags.
But none of that has stopped Peterson from becoming arguably the most recognizable intellectual on earth. His latest book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, is a number-one best seller, and his videos continue to rake in millions of views.
So, what kind of conservative is Jordan Peterson? And where does the “Savage Messiah” go wrong?
The Politics of Jordan Peterson
The simple answer to the question of where Peterson belongs in the right-wing tradition is that he is the latest in a long line of “idealists” who support an “ordered liberty” conservatism. He’s an idealist because, as he put it in Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, Peterson believes that “beliefs” make the world — indeed, are the world, in a “more than metaphysical sense” (though, in what sense, he never really explains). And he’s a believer in ordered liberty because Peterson has cautiously embraced a limited iteration of the basic principles of modernity — equality and liberty for all — but feels they will corrode if not embedded in sufficiently thick and slowly changing traditions, institutions, and practices that provide a sense of meaning and connection for individuals and communities as a whole.
Peterson’s criteria for “too much change too quickly” is extremely vague. Like other forms of ordered liberty conservatism, there is a sense that this is determined, above all, by taste and affect — a feel for what traditionalist glue is necessary to hold society together at any time rather than a priori reason.
In practice, this means Peterson supports most of the classical liberal rights, with a few qualifications: capitalism is good but can be complemented by social institutions like public health care if necessary; gay rights are okay now but trans activism is not; and we should read the classics of other civilizations but still recognize a “Judeo-Christian” West and its culture as a particularly important signifier.
Yet one thing does distinguish Peterson from your garden-variety right-wing idealist: he sees the world as determined by the great forces of order and chaos. He places so much emphasis on these twin forces that he maps the creative dynamic between the two onto ever grander levels of significance: first the individual, then their social group . . . all the way up to the monumental affairs of nation-states and, indeed, the cosmos itself. Since order and chaos play such an important role, getting the right balance between them is very important.
Maps of Meaning spelled out the dynamic theoretically, and Beyond Order: 12 Rules for Life was intended as a manual for bringing chaos to heel by establishing order in one’s life. Beyond Order is nominally about the need to avoid too much order by making space for chaos — though, as one might expect from a conservative like Peterson, a lot of it winds up being more about coping with chaos than harnessing or embracing it.
Beyond Order is even more political than its predecessors. Peterson has not been very clear about what his own political views happen to be, beyond the above-mentioned high-octane Jungianism and voicing a withering disdain for social justice faculty and activists of all nations. Beyond Order fills in this gap somewhat. He claims that, to the “degree he is a conservative,” it is because Peterson believes in the “wisdom” of “people who founded the American [and English political] system” who were “not utopian in their essential viewpoint.” Instead, they supported “incremental” improvement and lacked a “grandiose vision” of politics.
This all sounds like good old-fashioned ordered liberty conservatism in the Anglo-American world. We shouldn’t be too ambitious in our political aspirations or fall victim to the hubris of the idea that we know enough about how the world works to remake it. To a lot of people, it can even seem commonsensical, which is why folksy wisdom like “put your own life in order before you try to change the world” can be very appealing and inspire a turn to conservatism that belies its apparent status as self-help. Indeed, one of the appeals of these kinds of injunctions are that they are seemingly modest, down-to-earth, and realistic — as opposed to progressivism, which is ambitious, utopian, and little more than a pipe dream.
On Bigness and Smallness
Except that Peterson’s view is not at all modest, down-to-earth, and realistic. Not only is his characterization of the American and English liberal traditions as “incremental” and not “grandiose” historically odd — given the roots of modern English and US politics in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and its American counterpart less than a century later — but, more important, Peterson’s own philosophy is nothing if not spectacularly grandiose.
Where else but a book like Beyond Order — again, nominally a self-help manual — would you find a claim like the “reason for Being itself” is to make things “difficult”? Who else but Peterson would describe the vastly complex movements of peoples, countries, and social systems in terms of a generative contest between order and chaos while chastising a straw-man Marxism for boiling history down to a contest between classes?
Well, perhaps Edmund Burke. Like Peterson, you see in the great Anglo-Irish conservative the tension between, on the one hand, preaching limitations, modesty, and incrementalism and, on the other, describing a cosmic struggle between God and all the forces unraveling existence. Burke was a proponent of ordered liberty who cautiously supported the American Revolution but disdained the “swinish multitude” and corrupting philosophes who were at the forefront of its French counterpart. His Reflections on the Revolution in France veered between chastising those radical philosophes for their “abstract” and far too ambitious conceits, while ruminating mysteriously on how the social contract — far from just being between living people — is actually a majestic compact between the dead, the living, and those not yet born.
Much of this has roots in his aesthetic theory, which anticipates Peterson in its appreciation for productive dualisms. Burke divided our aesthetic experiences into the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful was small, orderly, delicate, and submitted to our mental and physical power; the sublime was infinite, overwhelming, awe-inspiring, and reminded us of our fundamental smallness.
Burke’s politics similarly vacillated between a folksy admiration for tradition and more titanic ruminations about the “spirit” of a people and “ancient” constitutions whose “authority” contains deeply embedded “wisdom.” Burke argued that this wisdom cannot be fully appreciated through reason, which all too often becomes critical and fixated on dramatic reforms but is nonetheless reflected in the order and stability traditional authorities produce. The paradox at the center of this is that if reason cannot fully understand and criticize this “wisdom,” on what basis does Burke claim it is wisdom at all?
Peterson’s writings echo this to a T. His insistence that we adopt an outlook of moderation and respect for order since we don’t understand the world enough to fundamentally change it sits in stark contrast to his own philosophical ruminations about capital-B Being, God, the universe, and everything else.
But in fact, like Burke, the connection between these two sides of Peterson’s thinking — the small folksy wisdom and the giant archetypal contests — can be understood through his politics. It is precisely because Peterson thinks in “grandiose” terms that he believes little can be accomplished, and much can be lost, when small people try to change the world. People are neither strong enough nor smart enough to pull that off, which is why it is often more sensible to settle for the devil you know than to gamble that you — with all your inherent flaws — can cooperate with others to get something better.
But in the event that these admonitions don’t persuade, there is another strategy: insist on the importance of submitting to one’s betters, who are more capable of mastering existence and deservingly at the top of social hierarchies.
The Meaning of Life Is Hierarchies Within Order Within Hierarchies
Peterson is fascinated with Friedrich Nietzsche. While he disagrees with the German thinker that anyone, even an Übermensch, is “sufficiently in possession” of themselves to “create values by conscious choice,” he shares the Antichrist’s deep anxiety that the spirit of “ressentiment” for one’s betters, latent in modern egalitarian movements, will produce, at best, a sick culture of mediocrity and, at worst, totalitarian leveling.
Beyond Order opens with the rule “do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievements” and includes gems like “it is useful to take your place at the bottom of a hierarchy. It can aid in the development of gratitude and humility.”
As many have pointed out, the Left certainly doesn’t oppose every form of hierarchy out there. No one will be marching anytime soon because I’ve been denied my rightful place atop a local soccer league, and even anarchists respect that some people should be prioritized during hyper-democratic deliberation.
What we oppose are hierarchies that are domineering, calcified, and organized to deny people what they need to lead a decent life when there are more than enough resources to care for everyone. It’s an eminently modernist position, predicated on a commitment to the equality and freedom of all and revulsion to the top-down vision put forward by figures like Nietzsche, who waxed poetic about returning to a more “aristocratic” time he associated with macho Greek heroes like the “man of great passion” Achilles.
Notably, Nietzsche also thought of this as a fundamentally anti-Christian position. Peterson and other conservatives have a strange habit of invoking Nietzsche’s theory of ressentiment to harangue social justice activists while positioning themselves as defenders of the “Judeo-Christian” West. Yet they fail to acknowledge Nietzsche’s radical argument that progressive egalitarianism was precisely the continuation of Christianity by secular means.
Nietzsche certainly had more respect for the tough-minded, antiquarian forms of Christianity seen with Jesus and St Paul. But that doesn’t mean he saw Christianity as disappearing with the death of God — Christian doctrine could remake and secularize itself, to carry on even after cutting its metaphysical roots.
According to Nietzsche, modernity and its democratic and humanistic antipathy to hierarchy emerged from the “slave” morality of Christianity — a “revolt” of the weak against the strong — dropping its metaphysics while keeping the moral core alive through ideologies like socialism and utilitarianism. These doctrines, focused as they were on equality, compassion, and pity for the weak, were the “residue of Christianity and of Rousseau in the de-Christianized world,” as he put it in The Will to Power.
If Nietzsche were here, he’d probably tell Peterson that Judeo-Christian culture is alive and well. At this moment, its activists are marching for trans and women’s rights. Ironically, Peterson’s Nietzschean inclinations to revere authority and hierarchy evince an anti-Christian and anti-modernist spirit — a yearning to return to a more aristocratic time when authority was respected and everyone else humbly accepted their place.
Socialism and Peterson
The Burkean and Nietzschean sides of Peterson’s work are united in their wariness of the modernist project. They’re seized by an abiding anxiety that we live in an increasingly disordered time, when too many valuable hierarchies and the embodied wisdom they contain are called into question by the ungrateful. Peterson would prefer people focus on improving their own lives, before cautiously trying to change society.
But the ambition of socialists isn’t so much grandiose as grounded. We want to fulfill the promise of modernity by establishing societies where everyone is free to pursue the good life in cooperation with others, and where everyone enjoys the material well-being needed to do so.
It is the reactionary fixation with hierarchy, with its yearning to turn back time to when authority was either naturalized or mythologized, that in fact has grand designs. And none of them are hospitable to democracy or human flourishing.
This post was originally published on Jacobin.