On the crisis of Metamodernism, Jordan Peterson, and the coming revolution.
I normally avoid Facebook, but due to a slow morning I found myself browsing my feed and stumbled upon this delightful article by Johnathon Gower, a peer from my days in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In the article, Gower praises none other than Jordan Peterson, the famed Canadian psychologist and seemingly overnight YouTube superstar. In less than a year, Jordan Peterson has gathered an impressively large fan base of devoted followers. His book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is a best seller on Amazon. His videos have millions of views. But while Peterson’s sudden stardom has brought him fame and fortune, it has also spawned a crop of critics, among them is Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs.
Gower’s article defend’s Peterson, reacting to Mr. Robinson, who dismissed Peterson as having “almost nothing of value to say.” As much as I enjoy Nathan Robinson’s work, I disagree, though on different grounds than Gower does. The reality is much worse, which is why I felt the need to respond. For while Peterson himself is a quack self-help guru, his meteoric rise and the content of his message speaks to the growing crisis that is rapidly developing before us.
First, we need to talk about why Peterson has become so popular. The easiest answer is that his fans represent a growing crowd of young men who feel lost and disaffected in society and are looking towards modernism as a solution to this problem. During the last decade, a movement has sprung up in rebellion against postmodernism. The NRx, the alt-right, 4chan culture, and the red pill crowd are all manifestations of this growing hatred for what these people say is a destructive nihilism at the heart of academia and, consequently, Western civilization.
I argue that this may represent a new aspect of what others have defined as metamodernism, which is characterized as a hybrid state of modernism and postmodernism. Think of it as an oscillating between these two poles, a back and forth between a belief in sincerity and ironic cynicism. It would seem this position has accelerated through a return to the values of the late 19th century, including the rampant spirituality and mysticism of that time. A line can be drawn between Italian Futurism and the NRx. Another exists between Peterson and the occult fascinations of the modern world.
We of the second gilded age have witnessed the rebirth of the occult in the form of new age “wisdom,” Earth Goddesses, and spiritual gurus armed with listicles. It is from this perspective that Jordan Peterson offers his lost sheep the rules of life, delivered by a strong, fatherly image Peterson has cultivated online. He encourages simple actions like cleaning your room and maintaining a proper posture. Such advice is obviously banal and if Peterson would stop here, he might be as useful as he wishes he were. Unfortunately, the professor often takes a dark turn from the steady-handed, fifties-style persona he usually aims for (“bucko”, “daddy-o!”) and detours into esoteric attacks on postmodernism and feminism, which is inline with the greater anti-female agenda of the far-right. His fans see him as a conservative voice for the return of the fifties mindset, but Peterson is more like coming out of the vault; there are remnants of the old, familiar world, but it’s an altogether different place now.
Much of Peterson’s thought is an amalgamation of Jung, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Joseph Campbell, peppered with his extensive knowledge of psychology. With these tools, he guides his pupils along their own “hero’s journey” (an idea borrowed from Campbell and probably most famous for its influence on George Lucas while writing Star Wars). He encourages them to overcome their villains and slay the dragon, winning the princess and dashing off as heroes to their own inner world. Peterson claims this personal mythology is lacking in our modern age. It’s what “cultural Marxism” and “postmodernism” have robbed us of.
These lectures have rung a bell with a growing number of men in the West. These people look around at a decaying world and search for answers to explain the process unfolding. Enter Jordan Peterson, like the snake oil salesmen who sees targets in the diseased, he has the answers (actually, 12 answers) and they’re available on Amazon. (I am always humbled by the efficiency of the free market.)
Peterson has in fact stated that he believes it is the job of psychologists like himself to steer society forward and essentially save his followers. I do think he really believes that message himself, not that it matters. The motivation is unimportant. Peterson has managed to tap into a growing despair that has awakened in our society. This despair is a real threat that must be faced, and unless something is done about it soon, it is going to erupt tragically. I shouldn’t have to remind you, dear reader, of what is happening in the world. The unrest has become impossible to ignore.
What makes a person like Peterson so potent is that his message is generally tame. It is this softer side of Peterson that Gower chooses to defend. Gower begins by dismissing all the valid criticism laid upon The Dark Professor: his weak criticism of postmodernism, his tendency to spill esoteric gibberish, and his attack on those who don’t have children. These are but minor hiccups for Gower who goes on to praise Peterson for inspiring him and for offering a diagnosis to the ills of our era. Gower writes:
There are intellectuals who would say that the despair is more than justified, and that the solution to fixing the root causes of it lies in the deconstruction of society, the demolition of traditional systems of thought and their practical applications. What Peterson is doing is offering an alternative to that diagnosis, with the argument that tradition can serve a progressive future, that a certain degree of social stability is desirable, and that too much instability can lead to a willful imposition of too much order (i.e. totalitarianism).
There’s a lot to unpack here but let’s start with the fact that there are many thinkers who are offering up solutions to the crisis, including Nathan J. Robinson. Offering solutions is, however, no justification for the reactionary ideas that Peterson often devolves to. But here is also an essentially Hobbesian argument in defense of the Leviathan. In the end, Gower is simply arguing that the status quo must remain because the alternative is too horrific to imagine. For Gower, the French Revolution and the rise of Nazi Germany where a symptom of this totalitarian backlash of order.
Sadly, this train of thought is quite pervasive and it’s not hard to understand why. The world is crumbling into an epidemic of despair. People are desperate for answers. But Peterson’s solutions are no solutions at all. They merely reinforce the status quo and encourage those in hardship to simply take it like a man.
Meanwhile, we have tech billionaires building bunkers in their backyards, hoarding guns, and warning of a social collapse due to automation, which will crush the already stagnating labor market and drive millions into poverty. They, and Gower, see a coming revolution which is being framed as a cultural backlash against too much order (aka SJW’s). The 1%, however, rightly see this as a response to their behavior and are making the necessary preparations (which include martial arts lessons and special underground tubes to dispose of corpses).
It’s amazing that Gower could defend Peterson on the emotional lift he inspires while dismissing the revolutionary tendencies of the past as brutal uprisings. Mere totalitarianism. The revolution is also a kind of emotional lift, is it not? One brought on by decades of anger, of corruption, and empty promises. What Gower really fails to realize is precisely what the tech elite has embraced: we are engineering a social and economic collapse. No amount of clean rooms is going to erase the coming automation, the financial stagnation of the workers, the continued dominance of the 1% over our political systems and our lives, or the very real threat of global warming. We must deal with these problems. Ignoring them is not an option. Not for ourselves nor the future.
Into this climate comes Jordan Peterson with his comfortable message of the nuclear family and happy days at the factory living your personal, epic saga. This is exactly the wrong response. It is the response of someone who doesn’t want to face reality, and who is afraid of the changes that are necessary. This focusing on the self and shifting the cause of the crisis onto the strawman of postmodernism will only accelerate the necessity of revolution and the chaos that Gower and Peterson fear will overtake them.
There are, however, alternative solutions. Other ideas have percolated in slumber and now rise from the metamodern divide. On the other side of folks like Gower are the new socialists; those who follow the likes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. The left has long since diagnosed the problem of unfettered capitalism and proposed the only real solution that won’t involve violence (wealth redistribution). We’re seeing a new fire lit among the working class as was evidenced by the West Virginia teacher’s strike. Labor has awoken and its ready to fight. Not because of a cultural backlash, but because of falling living standards and rampant corruption.
As we move ahead into this uncertainty together, it’s important to remember that chaos and change, things which terrify Peterson, are necessary. One of Peterson’s tropes is his defense of hierarchy through behavioral evolution. Specifically, he uses the humble lobster to illustrate the need for hierarchy in human society. The long arc of history reveals to Peterson a picture of necessary domination as species struggle for survival. Like the Social Darwinists of the 19th century, Peterson glosses over examples of cooperation and change, which are also integral to the evolutionary process.
It seems too coincidental that the rise of Peterson should coincide with an upper class awakening to a coming doomsday. He seems to offer just the right combination of quasi-mystic feel-goodism to steer his pupils along the dark road to reactionary thought and the defense of the status quo. As I’ve stated, this is precisely the attitude that will result in the most chaos. Instead of dealing with the need for change, Peterson and his ilk are forcing change to happen through violent means. The refusal to deal with systematic corruption is a death sentence. Peterson’s book might as well be titled 12 rules to ensure a violent revolution.
Of course, we could just as easily choose to listen to people like Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose groundbreaking work Capital in the Twenty-First Century paints a dim future of a collapsing oligarchy. To avoid such a fate, Piketty recommends a global wealth tax and wealth redistribution. If Peterson’s followers truly wish to avoid chaos, they’ll listen.