Last year I started to become vocal about the possibility of a discourse between philosopher Slavoj Žižek and psychologist Jordan Peterson. I was convinced that a dialogue between these two controversial figures would be great for the political and economic discourse at large. From my knowledge of these two figures I suggested that a conversation centred on Christianity, Post-Modernism and Psychoanalysis would allow us to better understand the nuances of how each intellectual approaches these complex ideas.
However, instead of such a debate, we will be treated to a discourse that focuses on “Happiness” and its relationship to Marxism and Capitalism. I think this central focus gives us a clear sense of what we can expect from their discourse, and I would like to use this article to outline what I think will emerge, and what we can hope to gain from their interaction.
The first thing I want to say is that the concept of happiness appears to be a central negativity for both Zizek and Peterson. In other words, for both Žižek and Peterson happiness should never be the aim or telos of a human being or a human existence (although it may be a by-product of other aims). Žižek is on record stating that happiness is a “conformist category”, and Peterson is on record criticising the positive emotion movement as ill-informed to an “embarrassing” degree.
The reasons for the dismissal of happiness as an ultimate value in-itself is derived from both of the intellectuals engagement with deeply historical and deeply psychoanalytic thinkers. Žižek is influenced by Hegel’s insistence that only the “blank pages” of history are happy, and Lacan’s insistence that the end of analysis is focused on uncomfortable truth, and not ego-happiness. Peterson is influenced by Dostoevsky’s insistence that a happy human would self-sabotage their own state, and Nietzsche’s insistence that a true human life is focused on self-power and not self-happiness.
Thus if we could unify Žižek and Peterson theoretically it would be in relation to the fact that both thinkers accept the basic Freudian break identified as the “beyond” of the pleasure principle. For Freud a human life was first regulated by the pleasure principle but secondarily came to integrate its own unconscious underground, which was related to the truth of the id, and not the pleasure of the ego. Accepting this basic lesson leads to the life of the drives which ride tension and antagonism in the same way that the desires of the ego aim for harmony and happiness. In this way accepting the life of the drives makes one’s life more difficult, but simultaneously, more meaningful.
How will this basic theoretical union between Žižek and Peterson inform their perspective on political-economics? We can only anticipate at this point but we do know that Zizek, by all accounts, is an unconventional Marxist, and Peterson, by all accounts, is a pragmatic capitalist. Žižek seeks ways to rethink Marxism by reinterpreting Marxist dialectics through the lens of Hegelian dialectics (its intellectual origin), as well as adding psychoanalytic discoveries to any basic understanding of what actually functioning communism would look like. Typically, Žižek is quite humble or evasive (or both) when it comes to directly articulating what actually functioning communism would look like, but he is clear that it would not be the utopian egalitarian Marxist archetype.
Peterson, on the other hand, is more conventional in his political-economic stances. He is someone who emphasises the individual over the collective as a metaphysical principle and thus sees communism as a collectivist ideology which threatens this all-important axiomatic base. He also tends to couple this emphasis on individualism with a strong critique of the actually manifesting communist experiments of the 20th century. Peterson has no trouble comparing the devastating and evil of these experiments as leftist versions of what happened in fascist Nazi Germany. Thus, for Peterson, the point of 21st century political-economic projects should be first and foremost to avoid both extreme poles of development.
Is there a possibility of synthesis in a dialogue that seems to be polarised from the start? If there is a synthesis I think it can only come from the recognition that both thinkers are critical of naive Marxist foundations, and both thinkers are consistent in emphasising the importance of reflecting on the unconscious drives of human psyches. However, they differ when it comes to emphasising central aims. For Žižek, the central aim should be rethinking the global left or universal left. The left must think in a new way the problematics of commune life, the pragmatics of socialised society, and the consequences of new technology (genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, etc.).
On the other hand, Peterson’s central aim is firmly placed on the individual and its capacity for transformation via deep engagement with the logos. For Peterson we should transform our conception of self at a foundational level and then, perhaps, build on a new political-economic foundation on the ground of enlightened self-consciousness. In this sense we put the cart before the horse if we think global geopolitics without enough deep reflection on the nature of the self.
What is at stake in this dialogue? I think there is a lot at stake. First and foremost high level theory can be thought in a new way. If I were to anticipate four major levels in which high level theory can be rethought I would point towards the “end of the neoliberal pleasure principle”; the “affirmation of psychical vicissitudes”, the “discourse on individual versus the collective”, and the “integration of historical darkness or shadows”. Each of these dimensions of our current understanding are in need of dramatic revisioning.
Neoliberalism is not just a problem for reasons of economics, but also for reasons of simple pleasure. In the age of neoliberalism we instantiate ethical axioms that revolve around the pleasure principle, leading us to a society of immediate gratification and low self-constraint.
Affirming psychical vicissitudes is necessary because we are entering new psychical territory in our world. This psychical territory cannot be navigated with only positive emotions, but must dialectically balance positive and negative emotions. Both are necessary and must be integrated to reach new levels of self-consciousness.
Discourse on the individual and the collective needs to be transformed because the old political dialogue between rights and responsibilities, progressive and conservatism, is totally dysfunctional and broken. Both rights and responsibilities are necessary for a functioning society, what those basic rights and responsibilities are is not clear. This could be in part because of globalisation, corporatization, automation and any other number of forces that have dramatically transformed the world we live in today.
Finally, integration of historical darkness or shadows is something we must reconcile inside our own hearts. Human beings are capable of the worst atrocities conceivable. There is evil that runs along each of our hearts. If this is left unacknowledged and unreflected upon we run the risk of replicating the worst disasters that structured the 20th century.
All in all this talk between Žižek and Peterson, Happiness: Marxism Versus Capitalism, should be meeting of minds that we will remember for a long time to come. I hope that this article gives you a sense of what these two thinkers hold in common, and what may be possible in a synthetic understanding between them.
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