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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Žižek v Peterson

Updated: May 31, 2020

It happened a year ago and I put it on a list of things I wanted to watch so I'm just now getting to it today.

Jordan Peterson v Slavoj Žižek on the concept of Happiness: Capitalism vs Marxism. Promoted as “the debate of the century” between two 'intellectual titans'.


The foundation of Petersons out-sized (truly undeserved) fame as an 'intellectual' has little to do with his intellectual prowess--or the depth of his readings of great works of literature, sociology or philosophy. It is more a product of a social media and youtube culture that actually revels in and hero worships anyone who appears to take down identity politics, the liberal mindset, or the 'intellectualist' leftists and Marxists etc. His discussion and attempted takedown of Marx through a reading of the 'Communist Manifesto' was vulgar and even laughable. Just a small example--"no one has ever gotten power through exploiting people". Idiocy. "Nature as a category does not exist in Marx’s writings". Bonehead. Read the first Chapter of Das Capital.

I doubt that outside the Communist Manifesto Peterson has even read any Marx let alone Hegel, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Bloch, Lukács, Benjamin etc. This was amply demonstrated when Žižek asked which particular academics he had in mind when he singled out all those crazy cultural Marxists. Petersen had no answer and at that point he revealed himself for the fraud he is.

Žižek's opening 30 minutes were typically provocative, freewheeling, eclectic cavorting from one subject to the next--but as meandering as they were it became clear that he has a much broader and deeper understanding of the issues and paradoxes of both capitalism and Marxism than Peterson, who mostly trades in cliche's, and rather dated critical perspectives. Žižek did not really talk about Marx in his opening remarks--he began with the claim that China’s economic miracle was not based in a free market democracy, but authoritarian capitalism. He may be right.

Žižek is not a 'communist', a postmodernist or even a conventional Marxist. With respect to the latter you might say that he's more a Marixist Hegelian than a Left Hegelian Marxist--and I just mean that contradictions and aporia for him are irresolvable antinomies--a good thing since it leaves us with a future that is radically open to different possibilities.

But he is also an interesting (and often very amusing) story-teller. Reading him is always a kind of adventure in anticipation because he often does reward you with flashes of insight--stuff no one else is saying. At least Žižek grapples with the text. When Petersen made claims like 'human suffering is not a product of society or economics but our inherited state of being' Žižek should have just slapped him.

Žižek can of course be annoying to listen to if you are looking for a straightforwardly analytic and clearly demarcated argument. His gift is an ability to turn ideas around and use negation as an engine of lateral thinking--somewhat reminiscent of Foucault. Thats why a formal debate stucture really does not play well in a Žižekian universe.

Had the moderator intervened and pressed both Zizek and Petersen to precisely say where they differed and why it might have been more interesting. As it was both indulged in a standard bourgeoise hatred of PC and put forward the sort of jaded pessimism typical of many academics who do nothing but talk to each other.

Truth be told though...I rather enjoyed it!

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