“Capitalism won” — Slavoj Žižek
It must have felt like we were finally together as one, standing in line at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, holding onto our $500 tickets. Everyone has a favorite YouTube moment—was yours when Peterson laughed and said “ha, gotcha?” Maybe it’s Žižek’s explanation of the “unfreedom that is experienced as freedom.” Didn’t we all applaud when the moderator invited us to “participate in the life of thought?” Do we see ourselves as those “new rebels” David Foster Wallace spoke of? Risking “the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs”1 to watch two old academics spill out their sincerity as we casually tell ourselves “I just want to be happy.” This is when ‘memes fight back’; memes may have tore us apart in 2016 but now impassioned debate will bring us together and finally force us out of our ideological bubbles. “Goddamn,” I hear her curse, “is there nothing genuine out there anymore?”
I apologize; noxious irony always serves to protect the ego of those who really care. We’re all bemoaning the current quality of discourse, it’s a pity that free speech seems wasted on those who exercise it. The post-debate write-ups by journalists read like duty sex, followed by disappointment that it didn’t seem meaningful the morning after. Current Affairs’ editor tapped out after one too many digressions from both speakers, as if range and rambling didn’t make for good YouTube surplus. The Guardian’s article criticizes Peterson for resting too much on the self-help shtick, though I doubt most of Zizek’s fans are believers in permanent revolution. The DSA-lovin’ Jacobin excoriated Zizek’s bourgeois pessimism, expressing incredulity that a psychoanalyst would not follow Marxist orthodoxy. A rare positive response came from The Federalist, whose simple excitement for “two thinkers who delve (…) deeply into our modern society” melted my cold heart. I understand the author’s frustration with “a world that operates so much on the surface” — surely we as consumers can demand something better from our “marketplace of ideas.”
Wikipedia pins the term on Justice William O. Douglas, who wrote “like the publishers of newspapers, magazines, or books, this publisher bids for the minds of men in the marketplace of ideas.” Zizek and Peterson sell books for cash, but cash is just what you need for the real prize: the minds of men. The debate itself was framed as a free-spirited competition, “Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism” — two ideologies enter the ring, and in a world where we are free to think for ourselves, the true ideology would emerge victorious as ‘truth.’ Economics tells us a marketplace works best when we are free to buy what we desire, so who had the better selling pitch?
Come match time, little of the pugilism advertised was present. Peterson himself seemed surprised to agree with Zizek so often, at one point sheepishly adding “I don’t have anything to quibble about with what you just said.” Forget capitalism versus Marxism, even happiness itself was discarded as a useless distinction. Imagine yourself in the free supermarket of ideas, holding two identical cans of syrupy ideology: how can you be expected to decide which one is the truth? In the age of YouTube, these “ideologies” are blending together like videos in a play queue, forming a little patchwork of grievances articulated by professional speakers. Without intelligence from the top, we’re robbed even of an enemy to identify out there in the haze. We know Peterson is a “fascist,” but what about Zizek? Is he a “fascist” for agreeing with Peterson? Why did so many Sanders voters switch in 2016? Why do all the far-right personalities cheer for Zizek and not Peterson? Is it true that even the Democratic Socialists of America is filled with “fascists”?
I present to you an alternative hypothesis. The Zizek versus Peterson debate is not a celebration of the marketplace of ideas, rather it is a symptom of its decline. With the old rigid hierarchies of media gone and replaced with the flat, decentralized autonomy of the Internet, concepts like capitalism or Marxism become fluid and personal in their meaning. Ideologies become individual experiences, not forced onto us by a Big Brother from an institution but rising from the little engagements we’re having online every day. Little linguistic communities form, then break apart the next day over disagreements on what the words mean. You might beg for temporary reprieve by taking the Peterson route, trying to convince yourself that ideologies are a group thing you can dispose of like the garbage in your room. You could take the other route; the social justice warrior, the ethnic nationalist, and the radical centrist all surrender themselves to their ideology to strengthen their defenses against an enemy that somehow seems to be everywhere. I offer a simple test; shut down the laptop and see if you still feel you’re under attack. If you’re by yourself, the source is probably you.
“All of which becomes more obvious when we interrogate the position of the cultural critic and moralist; the latter, along with all the rest of us, is now so deeply immersed in postmodernist space, so deeply suffused and infected by its new cultural categories, that the luxury of the old-fashioned ideological critique, the indignant moral denunciation of the other, becomes unavailable.”2
Let’s step back for a second and address the debate itself. Though Zizek was there to represent the Marxism of capitalism versus Marxism, the final words of his prepared statement were “I don’t see any simple clear way out.” Peterson’s honest response, “you’re kind of a mystery to me,” is likely shared by the audience who came with sincere intentions of engaging their opposition. When the opportunity for conflict arose, with Zizek pushing Peterson to explain the source for his paranoia about Marxist infiltration of institutions, they eventually came to agreement on a distaste for Foucault-inspired liberals who enjoy their “self-marginalization.”
Jacobin Magazine criticized Zizek for his “bourgeois pessimism,” but I feel that to be disingenuous. The 21st century lies in the aftermath of the Left’s great failure, which has splintered into a million tribes engaged mostly in petty fighting. There’s no longer a flag for the Marxist to unite under, as the USSR has withered away and many former Socialist republics followed China’s authoritarian capitalist example. As a consequence, there’s no top-down leadership defining the ranks and most energy on the Left is exerted on maintaining its own coherence online. Outside of the kept gates of online Marxism, there’s barely a “Left” to speak of. The most prominent leftist, a 2020 presidential candidate, is Bernie Sanders, who takes as his heroes not Marx or Stalin, but 1930s President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He might have the looks and rhetoric of a Marxist, but he is by no means a radical. The Democratic establishment’s discomfort with him is proof that the Democrats and the Republicans have moved closer together, a sentiment echoed by the Tea Party movement during Obama’s presidency.
The Left were once the champions of the working-class, who agitated and educated the proletariat, who disseminated the Communist Manifesto, Peterson attacks, to stir & inspire them into action. Now Marxism lives in the universities, kept safe away from the uneducated who might pollute it with their racism and sexism. In the 20th century, icons of Lenin and Hồ Chí Minh were suppressed in the fear that it might provoke rebellion — now their only use is to shock people on the Internet. Zizek’s pessimism is a rational response to today’s Left where only a few do the work while the rest call each other fascists online. With the internal structure in disarray, full of inside jokes and obscure scripture, how is anyone to make sense of the Left?
With the disappearance of a coherent left position, free speech becomes not the exploration of new and exciting ideas, but rather an exasperated sigh — the subtle admission that we have nothing to say. I don’t blame Peterson for his poor performance, his project of socializing lumpen young men into preparation for employment was always a coping strategy rather than a political manifesto. The sad irony of the lobster metaphor is that it appeals to those who feel they’re on the bottom when they shouldn’t be, rooting for a guy whose authority comes not from his biological strength but his appearance as a caring paternal figure. Peterson’s mass appeal comes not from his prescriptions for society, but from an emphasis on practical little rules with low stakes. “Clean your room,” “take responsibility,” and “stand up straight” would be good life advice in an illiberal techno-capitalist society too, if China indeed is granting us a glimpse into our future. “Life itself is fundamentally (…) suffering,” Peterson announces. “Capitalism is (…) the worst form of economic arrangement you could possibly manage except for every other one that we’ve ever tried.” This isn’t a cheerful fanfare in celebration of capitalism, it’s disappointment that nothing better has come along.
Zizek and Peterson are not equipped to deal with the reality of hegemony today. Hegemony is not, as Jordan Peterson claims, a fight for the right to free speech. There are no more publishers controlling physical distribution, and state censorship is even harder now that anyone with a computer can distribute volatile materials. The hegemony is rather that of a monoculture, an overwhelming sense of sameness no matter what part of the internet you browse. Mainstream liberals and conservatives responded to the flat, decentralizing effects of the Internet in the exact manner corporations did — totalizing it, making all user experiences identical, and insisting on policing the boundaries especially where they seem blurry. Monoculture differs from the traditional hegemony because it’s not enforced by a power from above, rather all of us enforce the monoculture that is inscribed into the very tools we use to interact with it.
“As Marx said, every child knows that a social formation which did not reproduce the conditions of production at the same time as it produced would not last a year. The ultimate condition of production is therefore the reproduction of the conditions of production.”3
Access to information and ease of communication have never been higher, yet we’re supposedly more polarized than ever. Do you think Fox News runs stories about the excesses of left-wing activists and social justice warriors to convert the undecided voter? Here’s a simple axiom — “if you see it, it’s for you.” The video of the Trump voter doing a Nazi salute isn’t to sway Republicans away from racism, but to ease the Democrat’s doubt and maintain the coherence of their user experience. If they broadcasted the average Democrat or Republican, it would provoke no response — the average voter is boringly average.
That is the paradox of monoculture. Everything becomes the same, but its currency is attention. What provokes attention eventually becomes absorbed, and survives in an undead state if it can be exploited for value. Ideologies distinguish themselves by their performance, hiding their bland sameness beneath. The Democrats signal their virtue and commitment to environmental causes, then lobby for the industries that pollute. Donald Trump garners his support not because of his record as a public servant, but as an icon of America who sends a message. The Chinese Communist Party reaffirms its commitment to socialism, then pushes for market liberalization. Islamic extremists demand a return to the ancient ways of living, but make videogame-inspired music videos out of their massacres. Boring debates won’t solve anything anymore — if you want to defeat Islam, replace it with something more glamorous.
The Zizek and Peterson debate is ultimately a swan-song for an old way of thinking, the last stand for a Cold War world view that sees conflict in terms of distinct ideologies which battle until the victor arises. When the old generations die, that worldview will die with them, and the desire amongst the young that drove them to this debate will only grow deeper. As the monoculture continues to absorb us, it’ll only become harder to step beyond it and be critical about concepts like happiness, capitalism, or communism. The ideological battles of the future will not be us versus them, but us versus ourselves, plugged-in & alienated, desperate for an alternative but incapable of articulating it.
Maybe we will quote Zizek, “I want a third pill,”4 looking for where monoculture ends and we begin — looking beneath the brands & memes to ask ourselves what choices we have.
Don’t be seduced by sleep, young Raskolnikov. A choice needs to be made — and if you don’t make it, it’ll be made for you.
1. Wallace, David Foster, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13:2 (1993:Summer) p.193.
2. Jameson, Fredrick, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (1991) p. 46.
3. Louis, Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, (1970).
4. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2009).