Can Europe Make It?

Jordan Peterson – reluctant darling of the radical right?

His thinking appeals to men who seek an encompassing, empowering theory of the world where they do not need to feel guilt and are not designated as oppressors.

Cathrine Thorleifsson
6 February 2019

Jordan Peterson speaks in Texas, June, 2018.  Wikicommons/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Jordan Peterson speaks in Texas, June, 2018. Wikicommons/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Jordan Peterson, Canadian psychology professor and self-proclaimed Professor against political correctness has struck a cord amongst the radical right. For his radical right audience, Peterson is not only a viral self-help guru, but a thinker whose views about male identity endangered by “cultural Marxism” and feminism aligns with theirs.

The diagnosis

In his lengthy video lectures watched predominantly by a male audience, Peterson confronts the forces he deems threatening to traditional, masculine ideals. He refers to biologically rooted and ”natural” gender roles and hierarchies that decades of post-modern ”cultural Marxism”, cultural relativism, feminism, radical left-wing identity politics, political correctness in academia and media threaten to destroy.

Peterson argues that fundamental concepts for social justice advocates, such as the existence of patriarchy or other forms of structural repression, are illusions. “The idea that women were supressed throughout history is a terrible theory. Islamophobia is a word created by fascists, white privilege is a Marxist lie and believing that gender identity is subjective is as bad as claiming that the world is flat.” These utterances have attracted more than 1.8 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. And they partly align with and reinforce the world view of his radical right followers.

The solution

Peterson claims that inequality is natural and inevitable and structural oppression is a lie. This view can appeal to men who feel alienated by the language of social justice and seek an encompassing, empowering theory of the world where they do not need to feel guilt and where they are not designated as oppressors.

Since hierarchies and structural inequality are natural, the solution Peterson offers is psychological advice. In his best-selling self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos Peterson prescribes tools for how to cope in a world characterized by suffering and natural hierarchies. With insights from the Bible and German and Romantic spirituality (Jung and Nietzsche) and mythology, he attempts to uncover key moral structures, which in turn act as basis for practical advice. His key insight is that life is suffering. Only by taking personal responsibility for your own life and chaos, by being upright and self-disciplined can you find meaning, improve yourself, your status, your manhood and by extension your surroundings.

Heroic masculinity to the rescue

Peterson’s ideas appeal to a diverse and broad audience that include Christian conservatives, liberals, a general interested audience, but also supporters of the radical right. Particularly his ideas about gender studies as “socially destructive” and the existence of national hierarchies and gender roles can explain his appeal amongst radical right actors. Much research has demonstrated how the perceived threat or actuality of an endangered male role is a central driver for male support of radical right parties and movements. Much research has demonstrated how the perceived threat or actuality of an endangered male role is a central driver for male support of radical right parties and movements.

The co-optation of Peterson by the radical right

The Norwegian ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic fringe party “The Alliance” has embraced Peterson as a way of giving their ideology intellectual gravitas. The political party founded in 2016 uses vigilante rhetoric against political opponents referred to as national traitors, who they claim plan to destroy Norway through mass immigration.

When Peterson visited Oslo, the anti-Semitic radical right party arranged a pre-party, took selfies with him and enthusiastically posted his rules for life online. The Alliance has borrowed Jordan´s project of individual betterment, and applied it at a collective, societal level. In such a transition between scales – from individual betterment to the betterment of society, the British political liberalism Peterson identifies with swiftly disappears. Instead, ressentiment is channelled through exclusionary nationalism and xenophobia towards racialised minorities and migrants. The appropriation of Peterson´s ideas by the radical right result paradoxically in the very identity politics Peterson warns against.

Dangerous ideas?

Peterson as an intellectual is not dangerous, but the appropriation and (mis) use of his ideas in white racial identity politics are. The idea of a threatened male identity can be a powerful trope to invoke in calls for violent action. Combined with Peterson’s lobster logic (that just as there are natural hierarchies between lobsters there are natural hierarchies between humans) this can be used to justify racial hierarchies and processes of far right dehumanization.

Numerous of Peterson’s ideological critics characterise him as an ”alt-right” figure. Peterson himself rejects the label, claiming that his theories and rules for life can hinder the continued growth of the far right and radicalisation of disenchanted men dissatisfied with the present.

He replies that if men are pressed to feminize, they will become more interested in hardcore, fascist political ideology. Peterson might be reluctantly hijacked by the radical right. At the same time he does not seem to sufficiently distance himself from them either. The lack of condemnation or engagement with critics who present evidence of the radical right co-optation of his ideas can of course embolden radical right actors who have already found their favourite guru.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics of class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this a chance to realign around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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