Where the Left and the Right Could Meet: Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson

Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson, the two most prominent public intellectuals of our time, met on the stage of the Sony Centre of the Performing Arts in Toronto on April 19, 2019, to debate Marxism, capitalism and happiness in front of a sold out crowd. The resulting convergence of their positions was surprising.

Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson are polarizing figures by all accounts.

Peterson is explicitly hated by the left, not in the least due to his suggestion that women are not qualitatively equal participants in conversation. Peterson has said that women would be happier in their traditional roles and has defended enforced monogamy to “decrease male violence.” He has claimed that because men are unable to “control crazy women,” they cannot engage with them respectfully. Many remember his initial rise to fame based on his refusal to use gender neutral pronouns.

Žižek, on the other hand, is branded as a “cultural Marxist” by the right. His defences of Marx and interpretations of socialism have brought him the status of anti-capitalist hero among the communist youth on university campuses.

The idea that these thinkers could have something in common therefore makes us uncomfortable, whichever side we stand on.

But at even a superficial glance, their proximity should not be surprising. Polarizing figures are relished by those who feel most polarized. Žižek and Peterson cater to individuals who perceive the system as failing them, and who therefore feel limited in their possibilities for the future.

Žižek has been vocal about the impossibility of neo-liberal, capitalist, nationalist solutions to problems that require global cooperation, the most flagrant of which is climate change. He therefore serves as a logical representative for those rallying against climate change on university campuses, as they see a bleak future of broken promises as the earth continues to warm to levels beyond the 2°C limit of the Paris Agreement. Add Žižek’s unconventional—often sweaty and unkempt—presentation style to the mix, and you have the embodied critique of the baby boomer generation.

Peterson, a groomed man in tailored suit, insulted by the very question of what could give him the “authority to determine” his choice of words and pronouns—indeed, the father figure who yells “straighten up!” and “sort yourself out!”—is precisely the late baby boomer Žižek and his supporters disdain. Instead of deconstructing the systematic, social problems that continue to justify economic disparity and discrimination against the historically marginalized, Peterson barks at the individual to “buck up!” and “take some responsibility!”

And if we are to be honest, many young men who support Peterson claim this approach has helped them.

Why? Because they, like Žižek’s supporters, view the system and norms of our time as having neglected them. They feel marginalized by the university and its endorsement of student leftist politics, and infer that their unemployed status is a result of employment equity policies. Peterson is the father who has “unmasked” for them that life isn’t fair and that they are facing an unequal disadvantage—which is frankly what the loss of privilege feels like—and has instructed them on how to respond.

It is therefore safe to say that a large number of the 3,000+ people who assembled at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto on a Friday evening to hear these two public intellectuals debate (of which I was one) agreed upon one thing going in—that the system is failing us.

Žižek and Peterson’s respective supporters are people dissatisfied with the status quo. What they disagree on is how to respond to it. Žižek opts for a systematic approach which deconstructs the myth that capitalism enables endless global progress, whereas Peterson tries to empower the individual and convince him the system can work in his favour, if he just gets it together and works hard enough.

In the debate, which was so civil it left those looking for an ideological boxing match disappointed, Žižek and Peterson publicly displayed where the contemporary left and right could meet. They showed themselves to be pessimistic, political moderates who exercise harsh critiques of the status quo—which is a more centrist position than was suggested by the event’s title, “Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism.”

They agreed that no political camp, on neither the left nor right, can speak on behalf of divine truth. The implication here—to paraphrase Žižek’s concluding words of the evening—is that we should risk being politically incorrect when we have something worthwhile to say. Ideological tropes are to be avoided and honesty is to be encouraged. Žižek and Peterson are accordingly frustrated with the (self-)righteous labeling of positions at odds with one’s own as “fascist.” They see this as shutting down critical thought and discourse.

Despite their disagreement on the focal point of the challenges facing the future of humanity, neither Žižek nor Peterson is an extremist. Žižek in fact agrees with Peterson that no group, including the working class, can be trusted to “do good” once entrusted with power. They both prefer the approach of regulating capitalism, reforming policy, and diffusing power to revolution and extreme austerity politics. Indeed, Peterson admitted the necessity of social regulation in the debate, while Žižek showed himself to be an academic who publicly thinks through the problems of our times without advocating Leninism nor Stalinism—thankfully.

Capitalism and Marxism, qua opposing ideologies, therefore did not directly confront each other in this debate. Perhaps this should have been expected, as Žižek and Peterson are both vehemently “anti-ideology” in their discourse. But does this imply that Žižek, like Peterson, is a frustrated liberal capitalist?

What saves Žižek from this moniker is that, despite describing communism as a “total failure,” he nevertheless identifies as a communist, as he thinks communism can be interpreted as an alternative reaction and response to contemporary political and social problems. Marxist communism in particular, on Žižek’s reading, must be constantly engaged in historical processes, progressively reacting to the challenges and impasses of our time. The concept of communism therefore serves a regulatory function for Žižek, as it provides him with a framework in which to identify, within the actual, socio-political conditions, the real moments, currents, events and processes which bear a productive potential for radical change.

However, Žižek’s interpretation of communism therefore also opens itself to the critique that it does not represent a concrete political program at all. Žižek has criticized his fellow leftists time and time again for failing to provide a viable alternative to liberal capitalism to deal with crises of our age, for example, the ecological crisis. But what alternative program does Žižek himself provide? In the debate, none seemed to be given.

Peterson, on the other hand, presented his own pathway towards a solution to the ecological crisis in the form of a naive faith in the development of "intellect" and technology, pushed forward by capitalism. Should Žižek not have provided his own competing program, detailing, for example, how resources could be redistributed internationally in a way which would respond to climate change and the "impending apocalypse"? Some of the content published in his 2008 article "Nature and Its Discontents" could have been valuable in this regard. Here, Žižek proposes instantiating the "four moments of what Badiou calls the 'eternal idea' of revolutionary-egalitarian Justice" ("strict egalitarian justice," "terror," "voluntarism" and "trust in the people") to respond to the ecological crisis. Introducing these points into the debate with Peterson could have brought forth a clearer, positive, Žižekian answer to the problems of capitalism other than just "pessimism" and "doom."

In the end, Žižek and Peterson surprisingly agreed that happiness is something fleeting. Happiness, they said, is grace. Whatever the precarious political solutions of our time may be, none of them, on their own, could ever make us happy. Happiness was therefore perhaps the only concept in the title of the debate, “Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism,” which was addressed head on.

Žižek and Peterson’s healthy dose of pessimism knows neither side of the political spectrum.