The Žižek, Peterson Pill

Expectations were understandably high for the debate between Jordan Peterson and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. For a debate centered around Capitalism, Marxism and human happiness, the understandable assumption was that Peterson would serve as the avatar of the Western, liberal order and Zizek a defender of the Soviet Union--as if it were still the year 1972. As many might be surprised to discover, anyone taken seriously intellectually isn’t about to defend the failed Soviet project--which is what Peterson sadly came in with the expectation of combating, evidently unprepared for the actual discussion in the process.

Slavoj Zizek is a prolific author who has written dozens of well-esteemed books, so it’s only fair that Peterson wouldn’t have become an expert on his philosophy in such a relatively short time. That said, it might have been beneficial to have at least become acquainted with the basics. Zizek is more interested, clearly, in the liberalizing effects of the free market and the rapid march toward technological domination, unlike anything yet seen. Bizarrely, you’d think you’d be seeing more right-wingers take ownership of this issue in a more thoughtful way than only Tucker Carlson and a few others.

Jordan Peterson, for all his strengths, has fallen down the antiquated rabbit hole of Human Progress statistics and TPUSAisms about big gubmint. In reality, as a psychologist and a man who has devoted nearly the entirety of his career to preventing our society from veering into suicidal nihilism, he is misdirecting the focus to defending objectively good economic systems like capitalism. Zizek breaks this down here:

If we’ve learned anything from psychoanalysis, it’s that we humans are very creative in sabotaging our pursuit of happiness. 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. However, I would like to add here a couple of qualifications.

First, since we live in a modern era, we cannot simply refer to an unquestionable authority to confer a mission or task on us. Modernity means that yes, we should carry the burden, but the main burden is freedom itself.

That is the absolutely crucial recognition of our time. It’s in the name, it is the free market, and few have an overt dislike of freedom. But there tends to be a cost attendant to every benefit, and something as radically beneficial as the capitalist order is going to come with its fair share of genuine and serious societal costs. This is made clear when considering the Randian, libertarian conception of man, where if granted freedom, will always act in his rational self-interest. This is true, except for that a man’s self-interest isn’t always apparent to him. It’s obvious to anyone who has been lured by temptation and routinely makes irrational decisions, especially when the incentives are framed in a way that makes the irrational, immediate decision easier than the rational one. In a system that is designed to cater to individual demand, it should come as no surprise that individuals frequently demand that which is directly hostile to their self-interest. Government isn’t necessarily the answer to that flaw in  the human design, but we have to figure out a way to mitigate its consequences in such a system. Someone of Peterson’s resume and interests should and is capable of discussing what those are, so to position himself as little more than a better spoken Charlie Kirk is a misuse of his intellect. His inability to engage with Zizek in a more sophisticated way is likely a reflection of his recent embrace of organizations like TPUSA, which limit and reduce politics to the lowest resolution.

The challenge in addressing these issues lies in the primal desire to demand simple solutions to the complex problems of our time. This much is reflected in the thoughtless responses from binary thinkers who assume the only conclusion that can be drawn from criticisms of capitalism is that we must regress into communism. Zizek acknowledges that his use of the word communism is more of a provocation than any serious alliance with it and goes only so far to concede that the Marxist framework could be utilized as a tool with which to criticize and reform capitalism, not to replace it: so where does Communism, just to conclude, where does Communism enter here? Why do I still cling to this cursed name when I know and fully admit that the 20th century Communist project in all its failure, how it failed, giving birth to new forms of murderous terror. Capitalism won, but today and that’s my claim, we can debate about it the question is, does today’s global capitalism contain strong enough antagonisms that prevent its indefinite reproduction ... So, how to act? First by admitting we are in a deep mess. There is no simple democratic solution here

It’s for this reason that Zizek deviates from know nothing college marxists and actual militant communists who characterize him as a fool, merely enacting the “old metaphysics of bourgeois pessimism” and unwilling to enact a “real systematic alternative.” He is willing to see the plain truth rather than clinging to a dead and failed framework of communism.

The Marxist issue notwithstanding, untethered defenses of the free market still don’t address the fundamental question surrounding tech explosion merging with the state. The work of Huxley and Orwell resonate to the extent they do because of their ability to foresee the potential consequences of radical surveillance technology, which even tech entrepreneurs now are clearly concerned with. The rat race toward increasingly sophisticated technologies, even if many of the tech executives themselves have valid concerns about their long term consequences, can’t be halted. The same mechanism of ruthless competition that delivers to us these great services is also the reason those technologies which maybe shouldn’t exist will still be pursued. This danger is compounded by the simple reality of how slow-moving government tends to be even in undertaking those few actions which are necessary.

An important example was raised by Elon Musk, citing seat belts, and how seat belt laws took years after the data bore out how much they would reduce the death toll. It demonstrates the structural incapability of an adversarial government structure such as the United States’. That is fundamentally by design, but it’s also a byproduct of our leaders’ personal ignorance of the current technological landscape that will only compound as the rate of technological change accelerates.

“The auto industry fought seat belts successfully for a very long time and many people died … this is like this time frame is not relevant to AI you can't take 10 years from the point which is dangerous so late. that's where get spooky write the idea that it can do thousands of years of innovation we're very very quickly.”

Whether they be technologies with civilization-destroying possibilities such as AI, or the ones that are hollowing out the service and manufacturing industries responsible for employing the vast majority of the country, the sprint toward progress can’t be stopped. It’s not clear when and if it should be, but the mere fact of the need for ruthless market competition is unavoidable regardless of what the answer is. If your company doesn’t invent that next product or eliminate that cost, your competitor will. That problem doesn’t end with domestic companies. You may have a government somehow successful halt the invention of a ruinous technology, but by doing so it disadvantages itself on the world stage. All of these innovations are linked like nodes in a network. For this reason Zizek entertains the question of whether or not our society will soon resemble the market socialism seen in China, which is functionally the next Cold War.

This is where libertarian assessments of the free market today fall short. The same economic freedom that spurs rapid prosperity and innovation strengthens the grip of tyrannies. If weaponized freedom can produce the tools of subjugation, is it really freedom? Where totalitarian governments throughout history struggled and failed to maintain control, the new technologies granted to us by markets grant them the means they otherwise wouldn’t have to maintain an unshakeable grip on power.

While Zizek may not always draw the right conclusions, figures like he, Andrew Yang, and Tucker Carlson are looking at the indisputably unique challenges of our time soberly, without the wish-making of neoliberal optimists who enter a brave new world with eyes closed. We live in a time revolutionary unlike any other. When we consider that our country has finally been overtaken by hollow secularism, the hubris of the few urbanites playing with technological systems they can’t fully understand, state representatives of an old guard that are incapable of understanding these threats, and a class of pundits stuck rehashing outdated issues, Zizek’s more pessimistic diagnosis of the landscape won’t be ignored. It would be interesting to see where a more focused conversation will lead.

So, a pessimist conclusion, what will happen? In spite of protests here and there, we will probably continue to slide towards some kind of apocalypse, awaiting large catastrophes to awaken us. So, I don’t accept any cheap optimism. When somebody tries to convince me, ‘in spite of all these problems, there is a light at the end of the tunnel’, my instant reply is, ‘Yes, and it’s another train coming towards us’.