The Zizek-Peterson quasi-debate on Capitalism and Marxism

In the world of the Internet, there are rising so-called popular “public intellectuals” as contrasted with a well-established and respected intellectual such as Noam Chomsky. Among these are Slavoj Zizek of Slovenia, and Jordan Peterson of Canada. Because of their great popularity and apparent polarity, a confrontation between the two was a much hyped event, and apparently it was a very successful show. It was billed under the title: Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism. Peterson is a defender of Capitalism; while Zizek calls himself a type of Marxist. Here is how the awaited clash between Capitalism and Marxism played out during their confrontation on April 19, 2019 in Toronto, Canada:

Because of the widespread interest this confrontation aroused, it is also an event that resulted in a host of post-mortem analyses, which I found in some cases to be more insightful then the confrontation itself, and I recommend that you listen to some of them. [see below]

My own criticism of the confrontation is that neither of them knows what they are talking about. They are allegedly talking about Capitalism, but in fact they are talking about some peripheral issues arising from Capitalism — like inequality and unhappiness.

Do they ever define “capitalism”? No. Both Karl Marx and Max Weber understood capitalism as a politico-economic system in which the majority of people are barred from owning and using land for free. Such people are called proletarians. And because they are politically barred from the free use of land, they are forced to sell themselves to others for wages.

The result is economic inequality.

Peterson focuses on abstract inequality as if this was the intrinsic evil, and defends the existence of inequality as a natural by-product of unequal talents, competition, and luck. Granted. But that is not the inequality under consideration by Marx or Weber.

The original inequality of having or not having access to land is the result of aggression. If one wishes to look at this from the vantage point of warrior talent or the ability to organize a warrior band or army, then yes, that is the origin of the inequality. [I recommend the small book by Franz Oppenheimer, The State, as an expanded analysis and substantiation of this thesis.]

Neither Peterson nor Zizek focus on this phenomenon of the creation of classes through conquest. The result is that they talk about inequality abstracted from its origin in aggression and conquest.

There is, however, one segment of their interchange in which Zizek criticizes from the right perspective, and in which Peterson has a very weak defense. This has to do with the phrase “post-modern neo-Marxism.” Here is the segment:

Peterson produces the phrase “post-modern neo-Marxism” from two errors. The first error is to abstract from the Marxist idea of an aggressive division of people as land owners and the landless, resulting in inequality, and then calling any kind of inequality an extension of Marxism as neo-Marxism.

The other erroneous reason he gives — which is in his imagination and also at best true only by association — is the claim that French Marxists, as a result of the discreditation of Marxism by the deeds of Stalin, shifted their focus from economic class inequality to all sorts of other cultural inequalities. So, for Peterson a Marxist who broadens his concern to include all sorts of inequalities is a neo-Marxist. And since these neo-Marxists also happen to be post-modernists; hence the amalgam “post-modern neo-Marxists.”

Some Post-Mortems of the Zizek-Peterson Quasi-Debate

Eli Rotenberg

David Doel

Peter Joseph

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