It was billed as an intellectual clash of the titans. On one side, Jordan Peterson, the tsk-tsking Canadian psychology professor who is the fastest-rising public thinker in the world, and a lodestar for the directionless (mostly directionless men). On the other was Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosophy professor who has, for decades, broken down everything from Kant to Lacan to pop culture with some of the most fascinating, if often haphazard, ideas of his time. Excitement was in the air last Friday in Toronto as they squared off for a live audience and paying livestream audience around the world.
The debate was titled “Happiness, Capitalism vs. Marxism.” As the title gives away, this was not really a debate in any usual sense of the word. There was no proposition, no affirmative or negative to defend or argue. Rather, this was a wide-ranging discussion around the ideas of capitalism and Marxism, instead of a head-to-head analysis of which is superior in promoting happiness, whatever that is. This is something that Peterson did not seem to understand, and that misunderstanding threw him badly off track right from the start.
The format was 30-minute opening remarks, followed by 10 minutes each for rebuttal and then a question and answer period. The Canadian guru of cleaning your room and defeating your dragons went first. This was a major disadvantage. Peterson, who seemed out of sorts, was tripping over himself, and engaging in long awkward pauses very unlike his usual style. He laid out 10 reasons why the Communist Manifesto is an absurd document.
As these kinds of surveys go, it was not bad. It finally landed on the reasonable idea that Karl Marx is envisioning a dictatorship of the proletariat to replace the power of capitalism, and assuming, without evidence, that the proletariat are good and the capitalists are bad. Yet everywhere, these dictatorships have turned into brutal killing machines. It was a very good college lecture. It was not, however, an assemblage of ideas that could compete with the rhetorical powers Zizek would next bring to bear.
Almost immediately Zizek made clear that he would not be playing the same game as Peterson. He opened by decrying how both of them have been condemned by the academy’s political correctness. Then he forayed into a more nuanced discussion of the relative value of capitalism and Marxism in creating happiness. His opening salvo was cutting and important. It was China. Peterson had extolled the virtues of capitalism in terms of raising people out of poverty, but so too has communist China over the past two decades, so how can this be explained?
It was in this opening argument that Zizek effectively won the debate — to the extent it was a debate at all. Peterson had trapped himself into a zero-sum game, Zizek had opened up a universe of overlapping ideas, taking in economics, politics, and even tech. At one point he wondered how an unbridled free market could avoid pursuing biotech, genetic manipulation, and bio hacking that will almost certainly create a new apartheid between high-tech wealthy supermen and the world’s poor trapped in frail and faulty human bodies.
By centering his arguments on the comparative value of each economic and political system to create happiness, Zizek gave a far more compelling account of both. His opening was by far the most interesting half hour of the nearly three-hour event. By the time he was done, Peterson seemed a little stunned. He opened his rebuttal by admitting his opening statement had effectively been rendered useless. He thought it was because he had misunderstood the terms of the debate, and maybe he had, but he had also been swept into Zizek’s rhetorical web, and there wasn’t much of a way out.
Peterson did have a very good moment in the question and answer period, something of an own goal by Zizek. The Slovenian polymath insisted that Peterson name actual Marxists on the progressive academic left. His point seemed to be that identity politics, often called postmodern neo-Marxism, is not and never has been real Marxism, which focuses almost solely on class rather than identity.
Peterson tore this assertion to shreds, deftly explaining that, after the atrocities of Stalin and Mao became apparent in the late 1960s, continental philosophers like Foucault, who had been avowed Marxists, needed a change of course. So they simply replaced class with identity but maintained the same Marxist systems and power structures in their philosophy. It was a lively and fun exchange.
When the debate becomes available for free streaming in a few weeks, it’s worth a watch if only because it is entertaining. Peterson and Zizek almost come off like an intellectual comedy duo. The former is the straight man, tall, thin, in a perfect suit, pacing and reading notes off a laptop, his gestures limited to the flickering of fingers while making a point. Zizek the comedian (he was much funnier) is bulky, unkempt, tugging at his shirt and nose like a cokehead while seated reading from sheets of paper. They could not be more different, but somehow complimented each other.
All in all, our society can use more of this. Seeing two thinkers who delve as deeply into our modern society as Peterson and Zizek do creates enormous fodder for all of us to consider our place in that society. In a world that operates so much on the surface, three hours of deep philosophical talk is a welcome breath of fresh air.