Rebranded Conservatism: Jordan Peterson and the Mythology of Personal Responsibility
“Take responsibility for your own life!” shouts psychology professor, Youtuber and self-help guru Jordan Peterson, capturing the collective imagination of the crowd of starry eyed young men seated before him. As he goes on, the banal platitudes begin to accumulate, “life is suffering, so get your act together!” “clean your room!” “Make your bed!” Peterson claims to be tapping into and addressing the alienation expressed by thousands of young men with his self-help philosophy. He blames third wave feminism, the dissolution of the quintessential male archetype and a lack encouragement for signs of a disaffected population of young men who are experiencing increasing university dropout and suicide rates relative to women. Indeed, one only has to mention the term “young men” for Peterson to dissolve into tears during interviews, bemoaning the “postmodern neo-Marxists” who's claim that Western Civilization is a patriarchal hierarchy allegedly undermines the fragile archetypical male. Here, Peterson references a far-right conspiracy theory commonly associated with fascism, but for now, let’s focus on the question of personal responsibility.
What does Peterson mean when he says we should take responsibility for our own lives? In an interview on ABC news Australia where Peterson lays out his philosophy, the interviewer pushes back, pointing out that some people face difficult circumstances in life, which makes it harder to take responsibility. Peterson agrees, responding with: “life is very difficult and we all die... well, what's the alternative, you take responsibility for that and try to struggle uphill because the alternative makes everything worse.” With this, Peterson cuts down to an existential truth; in the face of suffering, an individual can either choose to accept suffering and fight to reduce it by seeking-out meaning, or remain complacent. He cites existential reasons for why we ought to seek responsibility, arguing that we are defined by our burdens and that we should “carry the biggest rock we can find.” Here, I agree with Peterson’s logic and have personally encountered similar sentiments in a critique of Bartelbyism and hopelessness published in the anarchist blog, Research & Destroy:
Most of the theoretical expressions that emerge from this confused condition share a fundamental misidentification of effects as causes. Identifying the source of their unhappiness in their own naïve optimism and commitment, their investment in some political project or process, they reason that, in order to spare themselves future suffering, they must cease to hope, to commit, to desire, they must treat each new event as dead from the start. They conclude not only that disaffection and pessimism will cause us to suffer less in the face of the failure of struggles, but that optimism, earnest commitment, investment, are the source of these failures. In other words, they reason that the reason we lose is because we keep trying, despite the fact that it is obviously the other way around.
To seek out responsibility and meaning in the face of suffering and to fight against the forces that perpetuate one’s suffering is both empowering and perhaps a more rational course of action given one’s own beliefs of what the world should look like. However, Peterson draws an arbitrary line between individuals who pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps within the confines of the status quo and activists who seek to alter or dismantle it altogether, revealing a deep-seated political bias that belies a consistent application of his own message. Peterson focuses on the erosion of the male archetype as a model of meaning for all men (a doubtful prospect) while ignoring the structural conditions that cause many individuals, including men, to suffer from an utter lack of agency and self-determination. He justifies his disdain for activism with the empty platitude, “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world,” completely missing the fact that human experiences are shaped by external conditions and that addressing these conditions is not only an exercise of personal responsibility but also a way of expanding the sphere of individual autonomy and responsibility. In order for people to actively take responsibility for their own lives (rather than passively accepting it), they must feel empowered to contribute to their own personal development, friendships, families and communities. Both the state and capitalism, institutions lauded by Peterson, obfuscate individual responsibility and prevent individuals from finding meaning in their day-to-day activities.
Peterson himself admits that “our culture has oppressive elements to it, it’s not completely fair” (emphasis on the word “culture”), while disparaging activists who actually take responsibility for their own lives by fighting back against socioeconomic and structural forms of oppression that limit their sphere of action such as as racism, patriarchy, transphobia and the state. For many trans activists, the search for meaning manifests itself as a fight to validate their own existence; trans people are murdered and sexually assaulted at a far higher rate than the rest of the population and are vilified in almost all walks of like. For Peterson (although he might not admit it or phrase it this way), the only oppressed group worthy of recognition is “young men,” who are, according to him, being silenced by campus “social justice warriors” with accusations of racism and bigotry — an utterly absurd claim. It is ironic that one of the far-right’s favorite insults to hurl at leftists is “snowflake.”
Drawing an arbitrary line in the sand at activism reveals Peterson for what he is, not a herald of the new far-right “counterculture,” but a hypocritical representative of the neo-liberal status quo who’s rebranding of traditionalism, use of fascist dog-whistles and glorification of toxic masculinity has earned him a major following amongst the alt-right. Peterson paradoxically finds himself in direct opposition to those who would seek to truly foster an environment of personal responsibility by expanding individual autonomy and delegating greater responsibility to the individual by dismantling illegitimate, authoritarian modes of governance.
At this point it is important to further clarify the concept of “personal responsibility.” Responsibility is derived from our capacity for action. Every individual with agency is responsible for their actions regardless of their circumstances. For example, a murderer is typically held responsible for their actions even after we take into account the underlying conditions that compelled them to commit the crime. Similarly, each of us is responsible for our own decisions. That said, underlying socioeconomic conditions, authoritarian modes of organization and centralized power structures can take away responsibility from people or prevent them from feeling a sense of responsibility by shrinking their sphere of influence until it is virtually non-existent. As people begin to doubt the efficacy and meaning behind their actions, they begin to feel alienated and lose their sense of personal responsibility.
Structuralist philosophers such as Marx sought to identify underlying socioeconomic constructs that explain and predict the behavior and sentiments of the average individual. Structures such as such as racism, transphobia, statism and capitalism serve to negate the impact people of certain groups can make in the world. Peterson accuses leftists of focusing on groups while ignoring the individual, conveniently forgetting that groups are made of individuals and that in these cases, group autonomy translates to individual autonomy.
So, let us return to the original question, under the status quo, can we individually choose most of our actions and shape our own circumstances? The answer is no. We live inside a framework of institutionalized rule via classes, bosses, owners and the state. Authoritarian modes of governance, from representative democracy to autocracy, force the individual to abdicate responsibility by passing it up or down the chain of command. Individual action is contingent on permission from the institutions and people that control our society and workplaces. From traveling across an imaginary line in the sand, to starting a new project at work, getting an education and in some cases, using the bathroom, our actions are dictated by faceless, impersonal institutions and socioeconomic conditions that fall outside our control. In these cases, an individual is only responsible for choosing between blindly follow orders or putting themselves in opposition to systemic domination, which is exactly what we see from activists, many of whom are not making appeals to authority by carrying signs and placards but actively engaging in direct action in order to oppose the centralization of power; physically confronting fascists, destroying fossil fuel infrastructure, hacking, squatting and farming. These aren't people seeking out "victim status" or special privileges but social equity and personal autonomy. Examples of what I mean span from mobilizing at standing rock and physically confronting Nazis at their rallies to 3-D printing assaults rifles and forming temporary autonomous zones like Exarchia and ZAD inside the cracks of state hegemony.
Moreover, even when it isn’t entirely abdicated, responsibility is obfuscated by complex bureaucracy, geographically limited by borders, eroded by forced labor and diluted within centralized power structures. Underlying circumstances such as being from a low-income background (data shows that the most important drivers of one’s living standard are determined at birth), lead to individuals being faced with binary choices with only one viable option. While an individual can always choose to act; taking on student debt and accepting tedious, repetitive jobs for low wages will always be seen as better alternatives to homelessness, social exclusion and even starvation, so it’s easy to get the impression that you’re being dragged through life by the proverbial “invisible hand." The same applies when an individual is unable to cross a national border in search of a better life or immobilized by legal fees due to a court hearing for drug possession. It is no wonder that young men and other more acutely marginalized groups feel disenfranchised and powerless inside the status quo.
To further reinforce my point, let us take the average American millennial as an example. A recent study showed that the average American voter along with mass-based interest groups have little to no-impact on public policy in contrast to the business community. Our millennial subject is likely debt ridden, subject to decisions made by their employer and faced with the choice to either work under a zero-hour contract or homelessness and food insecurity, hence robbing them of any sense of personal freedom. If our millennial was a black person, they would face additional hurdles; studies show that 1/3 of the difference between black and white wages is due to discrimination and that people with “black names” are less likely to receive interviews for jobs than white people after controlling for qualifications. Black people are more likely to be incarcerated and face longer sentences than white people for the same crimes. When individuals fight back against these systems of oppression they’re actively trying to grow their own power, not the power to dominate others, but to determine their own course of actions and in doing so alter their circumstances.
Beyond the authoritarianism of modern society, individuals are faced with the totalitarian narratives pushed by capitalism. Americans are expected to be patriots and dissenters are labelled “anti-American." On the other side of the coin, corporations force employees to comply with their culture (people are expected to appear enthusiastic and happy) in spite of their true emotions, alienating employees from their peers and further drowning out individualism. Consumerism serves to reduce individuals into brands, titles and statistics. Peterson praises the status quo by telling his audience they should be grateful for their current standard of living; however, in doing so, he narrows his audience to beneficiaries of capitalism while denying that marginalized groups are really oppressed despite their own contradictory experiences of alienation and statistically evident lack of social mobility. Yes, it might benefit these folks to take responsibility for their lives, but on their own terms, not on Peterson's limited and prescriptive terms, handily summarized in his self-help book, "12 rules for life."
While we’re all ultimately responsible for our own thoughts and actions, the underlying socioeconomic conditions and modes of organization determine how we conceptualize our own sense of responsibility; do we see ourselves as powerless consumers, cogs in a machine, numbers on a spreadsheet or variables inside a social meta-narrative? The manner in which society is organized emphasizes various different conceptions of the individual which are in turn internalized by people. We should aim to structure organizations in ways that encourage freedom of initiative, while addressing issues such as poverty and corporate exploitation. Peterson’s unwillingness to deal with the fact that people are currently oppressed, that this oppression negates individual responsibility and that anger and resentment are perfectly reasonable responses to a complete lack of freedom, speaks to the sheer lack of nuance in his philosophy.
Telling people they should take responsibility for their own lives is great advice; however, I have a different interpretation of this platitude, to me it means wresting back control over our own lives from the bureaucrats, politicians and corporations that dominate society, it means seizing land and capital and pushing the state out of our spaces so we can build a new base for a decentralized society where the individual can freely make decisions without having to appeal to rulers and bosses.
In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure, the only adventure that remains is to abolish the society. -Unknown