The Hidden Argument in the Zizek/Peterson Debate, From a Competitive Debator

On April 18th 2019, at a sold out crowd in Toronto, two of the most widely recognized public intellectuals held a debate. As a person who spent their high school career on the competitive debate circuit, I was excited to watch it and see what kinds of arguments the participants, Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson, would advance. The two thinkers appeared to spend much of the debate agreeing with each other, and some were disappointed at the lack of apparent clash at the debate. While Peterson confined his case to an argument for capitalism over the political program of Karl Marx (and by extension the Soviet Union), Zizek gave a philosophically complex criticism of capitalism that apparently neglected to defend “Marxism” as such. There’s a lot more to the exchange than meets the eye however, and a few concepts from competitive debate can help explain why.

The current competitive debate community is roughly divided between two tendencies of argumentation (to massively oversimplify). The first is traditional debate, which is the kind most people outside of the debate community would recognize. It involves a straightforward debate over a topic known in advance. Traditional debate rewards tight argumentation, rhetorical skill, speaking ability, and eloquent rebuttals. A good argument is one that persuades the people in the room, not necessarily the most rigorous. Traditional cases operate under a grand what if question; what is the world like if we adopt one side of the debate vs the opponent’s. For example, in this debate, it asks, would a world that subscribed to capitalism lead to more happiness than one that subscribes to Marxism.

Jordan Peterson’s opening argument exemplifies the traditional debate ethic. Peterson may or may not agree that capitalism is the best system possible, or that happiness is the correct measure of what a good system is, but he accepted his side of the debate as such, and decided it was his job to play the role regardless. He says as much at the start, saying “I returned to original cause of all the trouble, lets say, the Communist Manifesto… Because that’s Marx and we’re here to talk about Marxism.” He makes the claim that this document is representative of Marxism, and gives as many criticism of that text as he can. At each point, he contrasts that with his interpretation of capitalism.

Peterson’s reading of the Communist Manifesto is essentially comparative. Each rebuttal takes a point from the text, and juxtaposes it with his arguments about human nature and capitalism. For instance, when he addresses Marxist class struggle, he responds by arguing that there are natural hierarchies beyond class that have existed throughout history, that class struggle is a small part of that struggle, and that class itself can be a good thing for society. He argues that Marx’s class struggle allows for dehumanization of people who can be called bourgeois, and that the bourgeois category can be applied to any political enemy, while the free market of capitalism will discourage exploitation and violent behavior. He argues that the decentralized logic of the market makes better decisions than a centralized dictatorship of the proletariat. In this manner he addresses several further points, essentially by restating a capitalist analysis of human nature and economics to rebut the Communism Manifesto.

The second major tendency is progressive debate (note: this naming convention refers only to the form of the argument, it has no relationship to mainstream progressive politics). Progressive debate tends to question the debate topic and introduce novel argument types. While there are lots of things that can be considered progressive debate, I’ll focus only on one common type of argument similar to one Zizek posited: the Kritik.

A Kritik (pronounced “critique” and borrowed from German) is a special type of argument that deconstructs the topic and the opponents argument to investigate the assumptions that lay underneath, and to criticize them. The style draws on the work of the Frankfort School and critical theory. Kritikal debate doesn’t view a debate as two competitors looking to prove their side over the other, but as a moment of discourse to further understanding of ideology. It isn’t concerned with the hypothetical impact of choosing one side or the other, but in criticizing the ideologies and influences that act on the participants in the debate. A Kritik will typically have three components; a thorough criticism of an ideology or phenomenon, a link that ties the other debator’s case to the criticism, and an alternative, a concrete thing we can do in the debate that will help to address the criticism. A Kritik gains much of its persuasive power because even if one debator can argue that adopting their viewpoint would hypothetically lead to positive impacts (if we choose capitalism, it will lift X number of people out of poverty), that is much less important than the real world impact of improving how the participants in the debate understand the world.

Kritiks are complicated and hard to understand in the abstract, but luckily Zizek excellently articulates one for us. He makes a criticism of capitalism, alleging that it is the fundamental source of the cultural antagonisms both Zizek and Peterson address in their work. He link’s Peterson’s work to a reactionary tendency within capitalist society that projects cultural antagonisms onto an external enemy, and attempts to solve those antagonisms by advocating for individual action that upholds the ideology causing the problems in the first place. And he offers an alternative, using Marxist and Hegelian analysis to understand the challenges that face us and think critically what should be done next. To summarize the difference in approach, Peterson is critiquing a political program, while Zizek is critiquing the way Peterson analyzes the world, to investigate why Peterson came up with his particular politics. Below I dissected Zizek’s opening statement to demonstrate how he does this. All quotes below are from Zizek, and are taken from this transcript.

  • In Peterson’s opening statement, he accepts happiness (or in his analysis, making happiness more attainable by removing misery) as a necessary metric for comparing programs. He also accepts the traditional consumerist logic of capitalism that equates well being with income and accumulation. Zizek criticizes the notion of happiness by observing that it is a contradictory notion, and that achieving one’s desire will only lead to a further desire.
“ Happiness is a confused notion, basically it relies on the subject’s inability or unreadiness to fully confront the consequences of his / her / their desire. In our daily lives, we pretend to desire things which we do not really desire, so that ultimately the worst thing that can happen is to get what we officially desire. So, I agree that human life of freedom and dignity does not consist just in searching for happiness, no matter how much we spiritualise it, or in the effort to actualise our inner potentials. We have to find some meaningful cause beyond the mere struggle for pleasurable survival.”
  • Zizek moves on to question a central point tenant of Peterson’s paradigm. Peterson frequently cites the bible and Judeo-Christian values as the foundation of morality, even among self professed atheists. He says that religion holds important truths that are a psychological product of the human condition, and that one can become more moral by returning to those stories. Zizek argues that religion often is a tool for convincing good people to do bad things without conceiving of themselves as bad people. Zizek also makes a first argument that Peterson’s attempts to warn people about falling prey to Stalinism or Naziism are self defeating and may contain a part of the core ideology that allowed them to flourish — see the rejection of Dostoevsky’s thesis about the Soviet Union, one of Peterson’s most important influences:
From today’s experience, we should speak to Steven Weinberg’s claim that while without religion good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, only religion can make good people do bad things. More than a century ago in his Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism — if god doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosophy André Glucksmann applied Dostoevsky's critique of godless nihilism to September 11 and the title of his book, ‘Dostoevsky in Manhattan’ suggests that he couldn’t have been more wrong. The lesson of today’s terrorism is that if there is a god then everything — even blowing up hundreds of innocent bystanders — is permitted to those who claim to act directly on behalf of god. The same goes also from godless, Stalinist Communists — they are the ultimate proof of it. Everything was permitted to them as they perceived themselves as direct instrument of their divinity — of historical necessity, as progress towards communism. That’s the big of ideologies — how to make good, decent people do horrible things.
  • Zizek soon makes potentially the most pointed criticism of Peterson yet. Peterson frequently talks about the rising influence of “post-modern neomarxists” who operate within the halls of academia and in the realm of social justice. They present an existential threat to all of enlightenment idealism, from free thought, enlightenment rationality, science, and even the foundation of western culture and civilization itself. He frames this as part of a Manichean struggle between the archetypal manifestations of order and chaos. Zizek responds by talking first about anti-semitism in Nazi Germany. Although antisemitism was based on lies and falsehoods, it holds a pathological function that operates independently of whether it is based in reality. Nazi ideology envisions society as an ordered, unified hierarchical whole, but the reality showed division and chaos were abundant. Antisemitism takes these antagonisms, which he claims are inherent byproducts of capitalist society, and projects them onto an external enemy. Zizek compares this to cultural Marxism today, liberals who demonize Trump, and implicitly to Peterson’s postmodernists as fulfilling the same function of antisemitism: an explanation for the antagonisms apparent in society that can’t conceive of the conditions that could produce them.
One could say that if most of the Nazi claims about Jews — they exploit German’s, the seduce German girls — were true, which they were not of course, their anti-Semitism would still be a pathological phenomenon, because it ignored the true reason why the Nazi’s needed anti-Semitism. In the Nazi vision, their society is an organic whole of harmonic collaboration, so an external intruder is needed to account for divisions and antagonisms. ... In the 1920s many Germans experienced their situation as a confused mess. They didn’t understand what is happening to them with military defeat, economic crisis, what they perceived as moral decay, and so on. Hitler provided a story, a plot, which was precisely that of a Jewish plot: ‘we are in this mess because of the Jews’.
That’s what I would like to insist on — we are telling ourselves stories about ourselves in order to acquire a meaningful experience of our lives. However, this is not enough. … The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, in order to account for what we are doing is — and this is what I call ideology — fundamentally a lie. The truth lies outside in what we do. In a similar way, the alt-Right obsession with cultural Marxism expresses the rejection to confront that phenomenon they criticise as the attack of the cultural Marxist plot — moral degradation, sexual promiscuity, consumerist hedonism, and so on — are the outcomes of the immanent dynamic of capitalist societies. … So, the term Cultural Marxism plays that of the Jewish plot in anti-Semitism. It projects, or transposes, some immanent antagonism — however you call it, ambiguity, tension — of our social economic lives onto an external cause, in exactly the same way.
  • Zizek then criticizes Peterson’s use of human nature to justify his political theories. Peterson argues that human hierarchies are natural and inescapable, and accepting and mastering your place within it is the best way to maximize your success. Peterson uses the case of lobster hierarchies to reject the idea that hierarchy is a strictly socially constructed fact. Zizek does not diminish the role of human biology, but rather argues that social facts interpose themselves onto biological realities to create a wide variety of possible social phenomena. He combines this with a rebuttal that hierarchy ought to reflect merit, by bringing up counter examples that show that merit and authority ought not be mixed.
nature I think — we should never forget this — is not a stable hierarchical system but full of improvisations. It develops like French cuisine. … They were making cheese in the usual way, but the cheese got rotten and infected, smelling bad, and they said, oh my god, look, we have our own original French cheese. … that’s the lesson of psychoanalysis, that our sexuality, our sexual instincts are, of course, biologically determined — but look what we humans made out of that. They are not limited to the mating season. They can develop into a permanent obsession sustained by obstacles that demand to be overcome — in short, into a properly metaphysical passion that preserves the biologically rhythm, like endlessly prolonging satisfaction in courtly love, engaging in different perversions and so on and so on. So it’s still ‘yes’, biologically conditioned sexuality, but it is — if I may use this term — transfunctionalised, it becomes a moment of a different cultural logic. And I claim the same goes for tradition. … Let me mention the change enacted by Christianity. It’s not just that in spite of all our natural and cultural differences the same divine sparks dwells in everyone. But this divine spark enables us to create what Christian’s call ‘holy ghost’ or ‘holy spirit’ — a community which hierarchic family values are at some level, at least, abolished. Remember Paul’s words from Galatians — ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer male and female in Christ’. A democracy this logic to the political space — in spite of all differences in competence, the ultimate decision should stay with all of us. … The wager of democracy is that — and that’s the subtle thing — not against competence and so on, but that political power and competence or expertise should be kept apart.
  • Finally, Zizek notes that capitalism has produced enough antagonisms to pose an existential threat to itself, and the people who operate within it. Not only that, but the logic of capitalism makes it difficult to solve those existential problems. Someone who does not criticize and challenge the ideology behind capitalism will not be able to solve the climate crisis, or the fundamental altering of human nature via bio-engineering. He issues a radical call to use Marxist and Hegelian analysis to think critically about the problems that we have today and what causes them.
Why do I still cling to [communism] when I know and fully admit it … failed? … Capitalism won, but today… the question is, does today’s global capitalism contain strong enough antagonisms that prevent its indefinite reproduction. I think there are such antagonisms. The threat of ecological catastrophe, the consequence of new techno-scientific developments, especially in biogenetics, and new forms of apartheid. All these antagonisms concern what Marx called ‘commons’ — the shared substance of our social being. … there is nonetheless the prospect of a catastrophe here. Scientific data seems, to me at least, abundant enough. And we should act in a large scale, collective way. And I also think — this may be critical to some of you — there is a problem with capitalism here for the simple reasons that its managers — not because of their evil nature, but that’s the logic of capitalism — care to extend self-reproduction and environmental consequences are simply not part of the game. … There is no simple democratic solution here. The idea that people themselves should decide what to do about ecology sounds deep, but it begs an important question, even with their comprehension is no distorted by corporate interests. What qualifies them to pass a judgement in such a delicate matter? Plus, the radical measures advocated by some ecologists can themselves trigger new catastrophes. … Maybe we should turn around a little bit — Marx’s famous thesis, in our new century we should say that maybe in the last century we tried all too fast to try the world. The time has come to step back and interpret it.

I think that the way in which each person approached the topic is emblematic of their entire philosophical approach. Peterson looked at the topic of the debate, and decided it was an immutable rule, a precondition that he agreed to by participating. As a result, it led him to argue against the political program of Marx, and to compare than to capitalism. Despite the fact that Peterson’s beliefs don’t square with the assumptions carried in the topic, he accepted the terms mostly uncritically, seeing his job as defending capitalism and putting communism on trial. Similarly, he believes that the rules that govern our society, like hierarchy and meritocracy are a condition of our biological existence, and our job is to manage that as best we can.

Zizek redefined the conversation by deconstructing the topic, and situating his opponent’s work within its contradictions. This allowed for a much more wide ranging discourse that challenged Peterson’s work right down to its core logic. It asked if individuals taking personal responsibility was truly up to the task of confronting the antagonisms of modern society, or if in fact that was a dead end. Zizek argues that many of the problems Peterson worries about are real, but Peterson’s analysis incorrectly understands why antagonisms exist, and his solutions reinforce the capitalist society that inevitably causes those antagonisms. He doesn’t necessarily think that the political program in the communist manifesto is the solution to our problems, but that Marxist analysis, developed in other books by Marx and other philosophers over decades, at least can interpret the world much more effectively than Petersen does. Peterson came to argue that the capitalism is better than Marx’s political program, but Zizek came to prove by example that Marxist analysis tells us more about the world and its problems.