Political Economy Matters
The mantra of the late, and decidedly not great, Andrew Breitbart was: “Politics is upstream from culture” Between his physical proximity to Hollywood, and personal aggrievement at the “cool kids” of the entertainment industry, it’s easy to see how a resentful rich kid from a Jewish family could channel his anger at rich liberals into making a premiere website of the new right wing culture war.
Long gone are the Bible thumpers and Anita Bryant types in this new culture war milieu. Instead, these culture warriors are looking to repackage similar conservative and reactionary politics as ‘dangerous’ and ‘cool’ by questioning particular ‘politically correct’ beliefs. While there is nothing inherently wrong with questioning any social norm, these figures are not just asking questions for the sake of intellectual curiosity. Rather, the new right’s culture warrior is looking to deconstruct social progress to recreate the old hierarchies of society that so many have dedicated their lives to deconstructing.
In this new culture war milieu, long gone are the Bible thumpers and Anita Bryant types. Instead, this new culture warrior looks to repackage similar conservative and reactionary politics as ‘dangerous’ and ‘cool’ by questioning particular ‘politically correct’ beliefs. While there is nothing inherently wrong with questioning any social norm, these figures are not just asking questions for the sake of intellectual curiosity. Rather, the new right’s culture warrior is looking to deconstruct social progress to recreate the old hierarchies of society that so many have dedicated their lives to deconstructing.
This brings us to Jordan Peterson, a man who has done more damage to the idea of Canadians as uniformly kind and understanding than even Toronto’s old crack smoking mayor, Rob Ford. Petersen has become the intellectual du jour of the moment, a sign of both moral and intellectual decay for both the political right and mainstream media. He combines the model of the touring motivational speaker with an ostensible Jungian psychological analysis, proving himself to be neither as charismatic as Tony Robbins or as historically rigorous as Joseph Campbell.
What is it that makes Peterson bigger than any of those figures ever were? The answer is right-wing politics. Petersen, like much of the ‘intellectual dark web’ (IDW), denies ever being right wing because he is “anti ideology.” And yet, all of his political and social prescriptions are built around supporting old hierarchies and systems of oppression as though they are natural law. To me, that sounds like the purest form of conservatism possible: to conserve the current power arrangement because of a spiritual sense of its rightness. Never trust anyone who assumes they are the default.
Let’s examine how Peterson approached the issue of sex and violence in a 4 person debate that occurred over weekend in New York. During the debate, which was ostensibly about political correctness, Peterson spoke about how prior to the sexual revolution, and women’s liberation during the 60s and 70s, men were supporting whole families on one salary. As such, this created a culture of monogamy. What Peterson fails to take into account was how the aforementioned time period was fraught with explicit institutionalized racism in the form of Jim Crow laws. What’s more, there was a deeply patriarchal system of laws that favored men and husbands over women and wives. Peterson fundamentally misunderstands the economic relations that created this, as he calls it, “50s dad” dynamic.
If “50s dad” was able to support a family on a single wage, why is that? Using his sophistry laden “just asking questions” technique, Peterson’s conclusion is that men were more charitable back in the day because their masculine impulses were not judged or maligned and that men and women were in more monogamous relationships. Besides the obvious fact that this ideal of “50s dad” is an ahistorical reality for most people of color or poorer folks, one doesn’t have to go far in their family history or examine popular culture to find stories of rampant infidelity in the post-war era.
What Peterson and those like him do is mistake correlation for causation. So yes, it is true that in the 50s and 60s, more people were able to support a family on a single worker’s wage. It is also true that gender norms were more strictly enforced and marriage rates were higher, although you don’t have to go too far to discover accounts from wives and mothers suffering in silence, or examine the prevalence of intra-marriage sexual and emotional abuse. But why do people like Peterson insist on viewing it primarily as an issue of culture first, not an outcome of a material reality around resources and power?
There was a very concrete reason why more families were supported by a single wage earner in the past. It has very little to do with gender roles or any kind of enforced sexual mores, it actually falls into the kind of “ideological thinking” people like Peterson vociferously rail against due to it’s “collectivist” nature. That’s the presence of labor unions, which did more to increase the wages of middle and working class people than any of the semi-spiritual ideas tossed around by Peterson. Yet these material realities are absent from his analysis, as though money and class conflict does not exist.
Peterson and his IDW cadre insist on their fealty to and intellectual roots in the writings of Enlightenment, ideas that were radical and consciousness shifting in the 18th century. This obsession with a very 1792 idea of the individual should show how deeply ideological and conservative they are. Instead of looking to find a holistic or redistributive explanation, Peterson and the like look to reset our understanding of society to an outdated mode of ‘reason’ more in touch with religious superstition and the divine right of kings than the intellectual traditions they say they represent.