Response to Peterson’s Polemics on Post-modernism’s Politics of Power

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, an internet-famous clinical psychologist from Canada, has recently been on a social media blitz promoting his mix of self-help psychology and his (so-called) “pragmatic” political philosophical worldview. His charismatic persona (which he largely attains by dressing up everyday platitudes in verbose language) has won over the minds of large swaths of disaffected right-leaning (mostly white male) young individuals who comprise the “alt-lite”. Peterson made the rounds in the news cycle in the past year when he began speaking out against Bill C-16, a Canadian law that gave gender identity and expression a protected status which came into effect in 2017. He argued that Bill C-16 would infringe on the right to free speech, claiming that he would stand to be prosecuted under the law if he did not use a student or other faculty member’s preferred pronoun. Despite the political impotence of his resistance to (the relatively benign) Bill C-16, it allowed him to be brought into the public’s eye, gaining the attention of right-leaning individuals throughout the English-speaking world.

Peterson’s modus operandi is to combine Jungian psychoanalytic mythology, standard self-help drivel spiced up with themes cribbed from orthodox psychology, and his own perverted version of American Pragmatism to create a system of thinking that opposes what he sees as the leftist zeitgeist of contemporary academic discourse. He claims that political correctness has taken a hegemonic position within the academy, blaming “post-modernists” and “cultural marxism” for (ironically) asserting their seemingly subversive ideas through force.  Peterson conceives political correctness as a discursive form which sterilizes speech and restricts personal autonomy. Consequently, he vehemently criticizes post-modernism and Marxism in all of their forms as being dangerous cultural forces which undermine democratic processes.

Dr. Peterson recently engaged in a public AMA (Ask Me Anything) interview on reddit, a semi-anonymous social media platform. During an AMA, anyone with a reddit account can ask the individual doing the AMA whatever question they choose in the comment section. Comments are displayed in order of the number of “upvotes” (reddit’s version of likes) versus “downvotes” (dislikes) that a comment receives. The AMA participant typically only responds during a given time period (usually a few hours) and chooses the questions they get to answer or ignore.

User /u/Jullemus asked the following poignant question concerning post-modernism and Marxism during the AMA:

One of your leading themes when it comes to modern Academia is, if I have understood correctly, the threat that “postmodern neomarxists” pose for it and its functions. The core suppositions of the said two philosophical strands of thought (if we even can consider “postmodernism” a homogeneous school of philosophy), however, are generally considered to be fundamentally at odds with each other.

Marxism and its newer variants, essentially, are arguably of the most potent “metanarratives” that have grasped the minds of people. Conversely, those thinkers who have been boxed as “postmodernists” in general had in common the utmost skepticism towards any “metanarratives” claiming to explain the whole history of the world, its peoples, economics and politics. For instance, Jacques Derrida multiple times distanced himself from Marxism and argued against any totalitarian system. One of Michel Foucault’s proficient quotes goes “Marxism exists in the nineteenth century like a fish in water: that is, it is unable to breath anywhere else”.

Therefore, implying that one could hold both neomarxist and “postmodernist” worldview simultaneously does sound a tad contradictory. Further, I have witnessed rather conflicting interpretations of this specific term and its origins as well as its justification. My question would hence be: could you clarify or elaborate the grounds on which you have chosen to use the terms “postmodern” and “neomarxists” in combination as a characterisation, as it most probably can not be on the grounds described above?

The general gist of Peterson’s response is that while Marxism and post-modernism stand in opposition to each other in theory, they end up being the same in practice. In his response, he stated

So the formal postmodern claim, such as it is, is radical skepticism. But that’s not at all how it has played out in theory or in practice. Derrida and Foucault were, for example, barely repentant Marxists, if repentant at all. They parleyed their 1960’s bourgeoisie vs proletariat rhetoric into the identity politics that has plagued us since the 1970’s.

I’ll first point out that although it makes sense for him to bring up Derrida and Foucault together since the original comment brought them up as points of reference, it doesn’t make conceptual sense to posit their theoretical positions as synonymous. Foucault and Derrida disagreed on many fronts, explicitly outlining the differences between their positions in numerous cases.1 Even without this dialogue, it’s not hard to see how the two thinkers’ systems of thoughts conflict with one another. While I won’t get into it in any satisfactory depth here, their contrasting conceptions of mental illness, power, discourse, pleasure, and the purpose of writing/analysis as well as their nearly diametrically opposed takes on the dialectics of Hegel, the affirmation of Nietzsche, and the psychoanalysis of Freud/Lacan warrant making clear distinctions between a Derridean theoretical framework and a Foucauldian one. The absence of any recognition from Peterson of this divide indicates he isn’t as well informed about post-modernism as he puts off.

Foucault’s fundamental implicit (and often explicit) claim is that power relations govern society. That’s a rehashing of the Marxist claim of eternal and primary class warfare.

Leaving aside his vulgar butchering of Marx (while class conflict, not warfare, was primary for Marx, it cannot be “eternal” when his entire politics is dedicated to abolishing it), Peterson clearly has a reductionist view of Foucault’s notion of power. While Foucault obviously thought power relations were important to the governance of society, he did not think such relations constituted the entirety of politics or human relations as a whole. In his essay titled “The Subject and Power”, Foucault states the following:

I would like to say, first of all, what has been the goal of my work during the last twenty years. It has not been to analyze the phenomena of power, nor to elaborate the foundations of such an analysis. My objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects. My work has dealt with three modes of objectification which transform
human beings into subjects.

The first is the modes of inquiry which try to give themselves the status of sciences…In the second part of my work, I have studied the objectivizing of the subject in what I shall call “dividing practices”…Finally, I have sought to study-it is my current work-the way a human being turns himself into a subject…Thus, it is not power but the subject which is the general theme of my research.

While Foucault is traditionally thought of as the theorist of power, he argues that he is actually a theorist of the subject. It’s important to keep in mind the double meaning of Foucault’s use of “subject” (sujet in French). The subject, for Foucault, is not just that which is active or autonomous (as opposed to the object), it is also that which submits, which is subjected to or subjected by something else. We are both the subject of our internal activity while also subject to the external world. Even if we are to buy Peterson’s argument that Foucault’s politics boils down to power relations, there are still subjects which the relations are between, which allows for more nuance than Peterson lets on. Peterson goes on to say

I don’t really care if either of them made the odd statement about disagreeing with the Marxist doctrines: their fundamental claims are still soaked in those patterns of thought.

Peterson correctly identifies the Marxist heritage of post-structuralist thought, but is right for the wrong reasons. He claims that post-modernism rejects Marxism because it relies on meta-narratives (a term from Lyotard that neither Foucault or Derrida were fond of) to explain historical processes. Although theorists like Foucault and Derrida disagreed with Marx’s teleological depiction of history, they did not reject the entirety of Marx’s work in response. In fact, the post-modernists Peterson criticizes were outspoken proponents of Marx; their seeming opposition to Marxists and Marxism is both noncoincident with their understanding of Marx’s work and is more symptomatic of the failings of Marxist-Leninism in theory/praxis that the theorists experienced during their lifetimes. While Peterson is strangely right in saying that post-modernism is “soaked” in Marxism’s patterns of thought, he arrives at this conclusion by ignoring the how “neo”-Marxists have continued to develop and improve upon Marxist thought rather than blindly reasserting its importance in the modern context.

There are deeper problems as well. For example: Postmodernism leaves its practitioners without an ethic. Action in the world (even perception) is impossible without an ethic, so one has to be at least allowed in through the back door…So: postmodernism, by its nature (at least with regard to skepticism) cannot ally itself with Marxism. But it does, practically. The dominance of postmodern Marxist rhetoric in the academy (which is a matter of fact, as laid out by the Heterodox Academy, among other sources) attests to that. The fact that such an alliance is illogical cannot be laid at my feet, just because I point out that the alliance exists. I agree that it’s illogical. That doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

It’s a very crooked game, and those who play it are neck deep in deceit.

Peterson is flirting with the age old right-wing “Cultural Marxism” conspiracy by depicting post-modernism as being a monolithic, deliberate movement created for the personal gain of a few “crooked” individuals. The absurdity of this almost McCarthy-esque anti-Marxist paranoia should be fairly self-evident. I mean, even if Foucault et al. wanted to unleash Marxism by brainwashing young college kids, doing so by writing complicated and esoteric texts was probably not going to accomplish that.

His analysis of ethics is troubling at best, downright sophomoric at worst. While the theorists Peterson identifies as post-modernist are generally more aligned with moral/ethical relativism, that does not imply that the thought of post-modernists is completely devoid of any sort of ethics. For example, Nietzsche, who was a key inspiration to both Foucault and Derrida, is often depicted as being an amoralist, seeing the death of God as the death of ethics itself. However, what Nietzsche actually proposes is not the abandoning of all values, but the conceptual leveling of all values in order to analyze them differently and in more detail, the “transvaluation of values”. It is not ethics that is to be abandoned, but rather, the blind acceptance of ethical systems. We are not to get rid of ethics, but to reject rigid, traditionalist ethics for dynamic, creativity-inclined ethics. In fact, Foucault makes this explicit when he makes the “ethical turn” in his later work, proposing an ethics of the care of the self based on a Nietzschean genealogical analysis.

Commenter /u/GregFo31 goes on to counter Peterson by rebuking his depiction of Foucault:

But Foucault’s argument is based on Nietzsche’s will to power argument especially in regards to the work that Nietzsche had done on the development of morals through power.
It is extremely disingenuous and ignorant to attribute every power dynamic argument to Marx. I recommend reading Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic.

To which Peterson responded

No it’s not. Nietzsche’s argument has nothing to do with the power relations between groups. And his idea of “power” has virtually nothing in common with the postmodern/neoMarxist notion of power (which is something far more akin to force).

Nietzsche warned repeatedly against the oppressor/oppression narrative and stated outright that the consequences of such a doctrine would be genocidally murderous.

First off, Nietzsche’s idea of power not only has a lot in common with post-modern conceptions of power, it is the point of reference to which nearly every critical theorist dealing with power uses. There is no discussion of power in post-modern academic discourse that does not include a discussion of Nietzsche. Peterson is arguing that Foucault’s power “has virtually nothing in common” with Nietzsche’s, even though Foucault explicitly built his notion of power out of Nietzsche’s own work on the concept.

Secondly, while Nietzsche was not as much of a social theorist as Marx, claiming that his notion of power is separate from power dynamics between groups is a poor misreading of Nietzsche. What is one of Nietzsche’s most well-known metaphors for power relations (the Birds of Prey and the Lambs of Slaughter) if not the positing of two mutually exclusive groups that relate to one enough solely through the play of power? Although Nietzsche’s thought is not usually explicitly sociopolitical, that does not mean that he did not deal with the sociopolitical or that his thought does not have sociopolitical implications.

Thirdly, Peterson’s last sentence is pretty much complete nonsense. Although Nietzsche did argue against Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic, that does not mean he opposed all narratives which identified dichotomous power relations. One of Nietzsche’s most famous texts,  On the Genealogy of Morals, consistently deals with (abstract) groups of oppressed people oppressed by a class of oppressors. Nietzsche’s twist on this narrative is that he does not feel any compulsion to feel bad for the oppressed or hate the oppressor (not necessarily in all cases, but specifically in the Judeo-Christian narrative of good vs. evil). Peterson might be mistaking this theoretical moral ambivalence with an assertion that the moral distinction between the two groups is completely ambivalent and indeterminable, which would demonstrate even further Peterson’s lack of reading or understanding of the theoretical framework he so despises.

This AMA is not the only place Peterson bashes post-modernism and the comments I have discussed here are merely brief examples of a much larger ignorance that encompasses Peterson’s political thought. While Peterson’s suave demeanor and complicated diction gives him the appearance of knowledge, his grasp of the theoretical discourse he claims to be knowledgeable of is only a step above an encyclopedia entry that failed to update its pronoun use in the last 30 years. Ignore Peterson when he talks about post-modernism, he is not an informed source.

  1. See Derrida’s “Cogito and the History of Madness” as well as the following articles discussing the Derrida/Foucault Debate: The Partially Examined Life,

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