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Saturday, June 8, 2019

Jordan Peterson Gets it Wrong Again on Inequality

above:  Jordan Peterson ; simplistic arguments on socialism

Dr Tristan Ewins

Jordan Peterson has made another intervention ; arguing against ‘equity politics’ as opposed to what passes for ‘equality of opportunity’ in Western societies. For his own purposes he defines ‘equality’ as ‘equality under the law’ and ‘meritocracy’ as far as it has progressed in Western society.  (we could also add free, universal and equal suffrage ; amongst whose most early ardent advocates were socialists)

By contrast ‘equity’ is argued as inferring ‘equality of outcome'.  
(for some the goal is even role reversal)  

Because the main focus on the Left these days appears to be gender, Peterson focuses on gender also.  Along the way he makes some interesting points. (and also some shallow, Conservative assertions)   

Amongst the “interesting” points:

  • Only a tiny proportion of men actually occupy positions in the ‘ruling class'

  • Corporate Affirmative Action in Sweden has had almost no impact on the prospects and lives of working class women. 

  • ·     ‘Equity’ can be interpreted as ‘sameness’: but men and women may not freely choose to be ‘the same’ if given the choice.

  • ·        Some women accept a ‘trade off’ of free time for lower incomes ; and that is an acceptable choice.

  • ·        Further ; providing OPPORTUNITY doesn’t mean women will  take those opportunities ; and old patterns in the labour market may be replicated here and there even after significant efforts to ‘open the way’.  (eg: Peterson mentions Mathematicians, Engineers, Physicists)

  • ‘Sameness’ is not the same as ‘equality’ or ‘justice’. 

But in response: it is legitimate to break down barriers to women’s (and men’s) participation in non-traditional realms ; without creating new stereotypes, disincentives and barriers for either sex.

Peterson argues that “the Equity Doctrine” “has gone too far”. He seems to assume that ‘Western meritocracy’ is the best system ; with (in fact extreme) inequality as functional to the creation of prosperity.

But many Socialists themselves have assumed ‘perfect equality’ is unachievable and undesirable, even under socialism.  Social Democratic Marxists Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein variously made that point that for the foreseeable future there would remain differences of remuneration based on skill, effort, and the undesirable and unpleasant nature of some labour.

Whatever you think of ‘communism in practice’  the ultimate (theoretical) ‘communist goal’ assumes free and non-alienated labour ; where there is abundance ; and labour has become ‘life’s prime want’ ; and diverse and fulfilling in nature.  This principle can inform policy today ; but without true abundance it cannot be fully realised. 

There are other questions as well.  Such as ‘co-ercive laws of competition’ as they apply not only to enterprises, but also to nation-states.  (competition can drive less desirable labour and social conditions) And resultant economic forces mitigate against the retreat of alienating human labour.  

Further, the welfare state itself demands an economic base ; and as the Swedes showed , this was best supported by policies ensuring full employment.
In practical terms, though,  those socialist principles can be furthered through educational, social and cultural opportunity ; voluntary job rotation ; a reduced working week and opportunities for fulfilling voluntary labour.  And the viability of which can be supported by a strong social wage, and regime of social insurance.

Peterson argues “the Left can go too far” ; and he mentions the Soviets ; Maoists ; the Khmer Rouge, Cuba and today’s Venezuela.  What this has to do with the feminism he discusses (which seems to be his central focus) is lost on this writer.  Also missing in this grandiose dismissal is any consideration of ‘capitalist atrocities’. Wars such as World War One with tens of millions killed; the massacres of over half a million in Indonesia in the 1960s ; and over 300,000 in Guatemala in the 1980s.

To that we could add atrocities and oppression elsewhere in Central and South America.  And the War in Vietnam ; which spilled over into the US bombing of Cambodia and Laos ; destabilising Cambodia with the consequent rise of the Khmer Rouge. 

And indeed while the current Venezuelan Government is not ideal, its developing inclination to repression is informed by foreign intervention and destabilisation, including sanctions and direct support for an usurper against the elected government.  Venezuela’s actual policies (support co-operatives ; support for public education, housing and health ; socialise oil profits) are not at all ‘extreme’ in the ‘wide sweep’ of history.  Venezuela’s future must be decided by the Venezuelans (UN involvement in elections may be acceptable)  ; and not by US intervention.

But the real problem with Peterson, here, is that any robust democratic socialist program is associated with ‘the Left going too far’ ; and hence rejected out of hand.  Peterson assumes an essential link between socialism and totalitarianism which does not stand up in the face of various other examples ; such as the Austro-Marxist experience between 1917 and 1934.

The connection Peterson tries to draw between the ‘equity politics’ he discusses – and Stalinism – is also threadbare.

To conclude ; some ‘equity’ policies – such as quotas applied to representative government – may be workable and desirable ; but too cumbersome to introduce to every sector of society.  And it begs the question why we are not considering the place of social class in all of this.  Which is the main factor in discrepancies of economic and political power.

Also, the most efficient correctives for inequality may well go beyond quotas.  For instance ; Subsidies for ‘feminised’ sectors such as Aged Care and Child Care which typically involve exploitation.  Or comprehensive universal and socialised health care.  A regulated labour market and industrial liberties.  A fully funded and first class public education system, including free Tertiary education. And the opening up of ‘education for active and critical citizenship’ to everyone ; including a balanced consideration of the entire political spectrum, and the promotion of political activism for a healthy democracy.

Again as Sweden demonstrated during its ‘golden age’ : a strong and comprehensive welfare state, social wage, social insurance regime – can provide for real social security and happiness.  And that social security also makes it easier for industries to modernise ; with transitions ‘softened’ by re-education and training ; and by active industry policies which seek to maintain full employment ; and create new jobs for displaced workers. (where possible making the most of existing skills sets.)

Peterson tries to construct some simplistic opposition between “equal opportunity/meritocracy” and “equity/equality of outcome”. 
In fact there is a ‘democratic socialist middle ground’ here. 

Meritocracy and equal opportunity are often myth-like.  Schools are not equally-resourced.  Class often dictates educational opportunity.  Gross inequality results in a ‘capitalist aristocracy’ dominated by billionaires – who have political access and influence ordinary citizens can barely dream of.   The heights of power in the US particularly are influenced by nepotism and private fund-raising. (by capitalists)

Meanwhile, in the US especially a ‘middle class’ is constructed as a political support base ; but even these could be rendered destitute through unanticipated health expenses where there is not sufficient health insurance.  

The postulated ‘middle class’ (much of which is working class in fact) is ‘disciplined’ through fear of descent into the working poor  (Walmart pays $11/hour and that is a big improvement on the past ; the federal minimum wage in the U.S. [is] $7.25 ) ; and the working poor are ‘disciplined’ through fear of descent into utter destitution.

Further ; to provide a more ‘global’ perspective: In early 2019, Oxfam claimed that the World's 26 richest people own as much as poorest 50%. 

With appropriate social wage, welfare and social insurance policies ; as well as labour market liberties and regulation ; and a genuinely and strongly progressive tax system ; it is possible to have much greater equality without resort to ‘extremes’.  The establishment of a robust mixed economy, and support for co-operative enterprise ought not be rendered ‘marginal’ either ; and the Mondragon experience in Spain is instructive.  It is also arguable that such combined policies can be more effective than cumbersome quotas applied to every aspect and corner of society. Though in certain instances gender quotas have proved very effective ; for instance in promoting women’s representation in Australia’s Parliamentary Labor Party.

In short ; Peterson tries to construct an opposition between ‘equality of opportunity/meritocracy’ and ‘equity/equality of outcome’.   He ignores any potential ‘democratic socialist middle ground’; and he virtually ignores the aspect of social class which is fundamental to economic inequality ; and crosses lines of gender, race, ethnicity and so on.  His resort to examples of Stalinism and Maoism is shallow and simplistic. It is true that parts of today’s Left deter internal dissent through the threat of ostracism ; and sometimes it is taken too far.  But with regard the ‘democratic Left’, Peterson’s references to Stalinism and Maoism would appeal only to the easily convinced and Ideologically prejudiced.

Here’s to genuine equality of  opportunity ; and to such a degree of economic equality that would put paid to the ‘the capitalist aristocracy’ ;  lift working people up from exploitation and poverty ; and empower ordinary citizens in democracy.



  1. Preety bad take in my opinion, comparing everything to social extremes is undertaken by all parties so is mute and there is valid point in saying Equity is not the same as Equality of opportunity.

  2. A decidedly unacademic position with four items in the bibliography. How inadequate. How wanting.

  3. It's a blog article ; it's not meant to be a piece for an academic journal.

    No - 'equity' as defined by Peterson is not the same as Equality of Opportunity ; But there is a 'socialist middle ground' which Peterson does not acknowledge.

  4. Anon ; such a sweeping dismissal also seems a good excuse to not engage when you have no answer to the core arguments.

    1. I'm not sure it's worth the time to respond to your shallow and simplistic treatment of the topic. My advice is to actually read what Peterson has written, extensively, on the topic. It very much looks as though you are responding to a single media appearance/interview here. If you had researched appropriately you may have landed a coherent argument. As it stands you have both misrepresented Peterson's position and made a mess of your own at the same time. Well done. I might add that I don't agree with Peterson, I'm just bored with pseudointellectual nonsense being published to 'counter' his position. No doubt those in your echo chamber enjoyed your work, but for the rest of us it's more evidence of the irrelevance of the academic left to everything outside the academic left.

    2. I'm responding to an article by Peterson ; what exactly are you saying I should know that I have missed? I'm aware Peterson has some sympathy for what could be called 'moderate social democracy' ; and that as a younger man he was active in the center-left. But every time he gets up to talk about the Left today he uses that line that "everything would be better if only THEY had been the dictator" ; In fact this goes against the libertarian nature of much Critical Theory over the decades ; it's a cheap throwaway line that resonates with some people ; confirming their prejudices. But the Left has always been more complex that this. That's the point.

    3. You should know that when Peterson is talking about the left, he is very specifically pointing to what he calls neo-marxist postmodernism in academia. That's a very narrow definition and he is usually pointing out the academic shift towards the goals of these groups and their manifestations in education and media generally in the USA and Canada and how these groups have influenced politics in these countries. These groups are not 'the Left' but part of it. And he's not wrong about their definitions. He is very careful to define the groups and people he is talking about.

      You've generalised his position and assumed that he is unaware of the diversity of positions in 'the Left'. I think it is foolish to assume he is painting such a large group of people with one brush. Of course you can find someone on 'the Left' with a nuanced position which disagrees with Peterson. That's easy. But can you defend the position of the people he is acutally taking to task? That would be very difficult given the clear definitions that have been set for equality of outcome and the policy decisions in universities and government agencies reflecting this position.

  5. Firstly ; postmodernism and Marxism are not the same thing ; Secondly: 'Cultural Marxism' is a catch-all phrase used with abandon on the Right ; but specifically it is used to describe the diverse 'critical theory' project started by the Frankfurt School - with diverse proponents such as Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin, Habermas, Fromm. Again: the ideas of these thinkers are very diverse. Yes there was a 'cultural turn' connected with the rise of the New Left - and Marcuse was especially important here. There's a concern that a lot of 'postmodernists' have given up on 'metanarratives' and actually challenging capitalism ; there was much celebration of 'the margins'. Many Marxists were actually alarmed that many of these people have given up on any alternative political economy. Importantly, a lot of post-modernists had 'given up on the modernist project' ; many were highly skeptical of the Enlightenment. No so Habermas, though - who dared to suggest the possibility of a 'perfect speech situation'. The point of all this? The Left IS highly diverse. You say Peterson knows this ; but he throws around catch-all phrases like 'cultural Marxism' as a 'bogeyman' without much exposition as to the actual complexity on the Left. At least so far as I have seen. There's a lot of interest in Marcuse or Habermas, say. But Marcuse practically gave up on the working class ; and the New Social Movements which rose out of the New Left have been pitted strategically against great swathes of the working class. Peterson plays to all these fears of 'politically correct cultural Marxism'. But does not recognise the diversity. And when it comes to communism specifically: there was a time when social democracy was synonymous with communism. Authentic Marxist communism has very little to do with Stalinism ; and neither does Critical Theory. My sympathies are with the radicals of the Second International - before the World War and the rise of Bolshevism. After that my interest is in Austro-Marxism ; Gramscianism ; Eurocommunism ; but also Nordic Social Democracy - some of whose thinkers were very original and not Marxists. (eg: Wigforss) But Peterson dumps all Marxists into the totalitarian category - at least in what I have seen and read. Marxism and postmodernism are not the same. Marxism is very diverse. Critical Theory is very diverse. A lot of the 'cultural left' has broken almost entirely from the traditional Left - and this is a concern. They feed into the manufactured opposition between 'average working people' and 'Elites'. This is a narrative used to wedge and destroy the Left ; and Peterson is playing to it. ( more coming)

  6. So basically Peterson is playing to the general narrative on some 'Elite' 'cultural Left' ; and also having a dig at the Trots too - suggesting they are *all* closet Stalinists. But if he's done his research he knows very well the Left's diversity. He must know there was resistance to Stalinism AND Bolshevism on the social democratic (Marxist) and libertarian (Marxist) Left. He'd know of the Austro-Marxists commitment to democracy ; and of the embrace of a 'democratic path' with the Eurocommunists. He'd know that Marxists like Eagleton were highly critical of post-modernism. And that there was always opposition to Stalinism on the socialist left (not just Trotskyists either). A lot of it is old-fashioned red-baiting ; and it depends on peoples' ignorance. Maybe he makes a more nuanced account somewhere - but I haven't seen it yet. Incidentally: I agree some of the Left is intolerant ; and can suppress dissent through ostracism. I've seen that happen ; it's happened to me. But that's not unique to the Left. I prefer Rosa Luxemburg here:

    “Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.”

    and also:

    “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.”

    I practice I'm probably closer to 'the Marxist Centre' than Rosa ; I'm also not a philosophical materialist ; I believe in free will ; transcendent consciousness ; the soul.... So I'm far from being a conventional Marxist in these regards. But I recognise the diversity of the Left ; which Peterson wrongs with 'catch-all' cries of 'Cultural Marxism' and so on.

  7. Again parts of the Left are intolerant and suppress dissent through ostracism. That's a fact. I concede that much to Peterson. But it pales when compared with past McCarthyism.

  8. I don't disagree with a lot of what you just said.
    I specifically agree that not all postmodernists are marxists and that not all marxists are postmodernists. But I would insist that Peterson is clearly pointing to a small group of academics in universities who are using ideas from postmodernism and marxism to push for social change in a way that Peterson thinks is bad for individuals (he is a clinical psychologist afterall).
    I don't think Peterson can really have a discussion with a journalist about comparative analysis of political thought on the left in even a 20 minute interview, however, he can have a discussion which is appropriate to the audience. Which he regularly does and unfortunately generalisations happen at that level of communication.
    I'm glad there is agreement that some on the Left are intolerant, and I would say that Peterson only argues that a very small group are causing the problems. I dare say the group he is calling the postmodern neomarxists are probably going to have a large intersection with the group you are saying are intolerant.

    What I cannot stand is that every news outlet in this country seems to froth at the mouth every time someone like Peterson has something to say. The bias is overwhelming in recent years. Your article is more sophisticated than most, but quite frankly, I think if you took the time to read his work you might say something different about his ideas. They aren't as objectionable in their detail.

  9. Anon ; if you can link to evidence for your arguments about Peterson's views I'd be willing to take a look.

  10. Also I should correct myself:

    I go too far when I argue:

    "A lot of the 'cultural left' has broken almost entirely from the traditional Left - and this is a concern. They feed into the manufactured opposition between 'average working people' and 'Elites'".

    Some of the 'cultural Left' do this through neglect of social class ; but not all. But it is true that parts of the working class is advantaged because 'white', 'hetero', 'male' etc. There's substance to many of the critiques. But sometimes 'it comes out' and is interpreted as being "straight white men are bad" ; When this is combined with a neglect of class it serves to divide the Left's traditional constituencies. There is oppression in this world on the basis of gender, race, sexuality and so on. But somehow the Left needs to win over the working class again, including the white working class. This can be done through nuanced critique. And accepting that the white working class is also oppressed. Joe Bageant talks about this in 'Deer Hunting for Jesus'. In fact, while some oppression is 'systemic' ; the kind of disadvantages people face differ from individual to individual as well. Sometimes the cultural Left 'writes people off' on account of their 'Identity categories'. But often people's individual stories are more complex ; and should not be easily dismissed. "Intersectionality" attempts to map a very complex picture including systemic oppression. But even this complex picture is not sufficient to grasp the situation of all real people. The Left cannot and must not allow a wedge to be driven between "the cultural Left" and the working class ; including white workers. Those people are oppressed under capitalism ; and the Left needs them on-side if if wants to really change things.

  11. Peterson makes more sense here (see the URL below) than where he complains of 'cultural Marxism'.

    I think he overstates the West's 'respect for the individual' in fact (you only have to consider the slaughter of World War One) ; but liberal individualism is part of our legitimating culture ; and there are some good ramifications from that.

    He doesn't emphasise the need to change this collectively either. Perhaps he overstates and over-estimates the power of an isolated individual. (though here I am trying to change the world, lol)

    But you can see where his dislike of communism comes from. ie: from the stories of Solzhenitsyn. From the reality of the Gulag. It's a moral critique of Stalinism basically. But he never really bothered to go directly to Marx in enough depth to truly understand him. And he didn't look deeply enough into Marxism to understand its diversity. He appreciates that bad things have happened in Western society ; but perhaps not enough. For instance he talks about the Khmer Rouge - But seems to have nothing to say about the place of Nixon and Kissinger there.

    Also he believes that authenticity beats character assassination. Not necessarily so. Peterson has big interests and big resources behind him. For someone less prominent it's much harder. There's a lot of stake in politics. Big interests behind the scenes. Arguably there's many of them ; some worse than others. That leads to enormous pressures for conformity on pain of ostracism or worse. It leads to a corruption of politics. It happens on all sides.

    If Peterson is honest with himself he'll admit there's actually some sense in Marx. There's humanity in his critique of alienation for instance.

    What I think he needs to do is to go back and engage more thoroughly with the broad Marxist tradition to get a better picture. But if he compromises in face of the truth how would his right-wing supporters respond? Perhaps Zizek was right to engage rather than 'go for the jugular'. Peterson appears to be a liberal conservative - but he's not a Reactionary. And sometimes people change through engagement.