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Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson: the missing link between neoliberalism and the radical right

The academics have distanced themselves from the fringes of the right, but their ideas have gained currency there.

Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson: a bridge between fringe and mainstream conservatism? Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson: a bridge between fringe and mainstream conservatism? Image: Bhaawest (CC BY-SA 4.0), Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0).Men of science, self-described classical liberals, Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson wouldn’t be seen dead among the gaming, trolling, LOL-ing white nationalists of the alt right. These are serious guys. Pinker is a Harvard evolutionary psychologist, and has been a major voice of public science since the early 1990s. Peterson, newer to the fame, has manoeuvred the attention he received for refusing to adopt non-conventional pronouns for trans and non-binary students, into a huge and lucrative speaking platform, but his academic career is as a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto. 

We take the word of Peterson’s following that the reactionary Kulturkritik and admonitions to “tidy your room” in his YouTube lectures and hybrid self-help book manifesto, 12 Rules for Life, has pulled young men back from the brink of radicalisation or suicide. We take his word that, as a practitioner, he has “helped people deal with things that most people can’t imagine”. And no doubt the effect of Pinker’s elegant and twinkly-eyed brand of scientific optimism on most of its audience is yet more benign. We needn’t get personal, so let’s evoke a composite figure wherever possible, returning to the differences between these two figures where necessary. Call him Pinkerson. My point is that whatever Pinkerson’s motivations, he is an academic whose manner of deploying his huge platform lends credibility to other radical right ideas on the up across the culture. What is more, these ideas are inconsistent in themselves, and I want Pinkerson’s followers to think again.[1]

In its early days, the alt right was dominated by what the scholar of the far right, George Hawley describes as “endless discussions” of race framed in euphemistically highbrow terms of “human biodiversity” and “the heritability of IQ’” before finding wider success as the “ostentatiously vulgar and offensive” movement we have since become familiar with.[2] However, after this taboo-breaking brought us to actual goose-stepping and the assassination of a young socialist, Heather Heyer, during the Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville in 2017, an anxious migration of tone back to the ‘merely scientific’ occurred among some of its former fellow travellers. While alt right figures got banned from social media platforms, and alt lite ones lost book contracts or were reduced to promoting energy pills on Infowars, the New York Times was heralding an “intellectual dark web” of academics and para-academics, willing to deploy similar tactics of online self-promotion, and flirting with similarly reactionary political conclusions. The anniversary Unite the Right demonstration in Washington in 2018 was a wash out. But the fact is that young men can now get respectable academic backing for reactionary views on race and sex, a moral high-ground over politically correct liberals, and a counter-cultural worldview packaged as a lifestyle brand from thinkers with university posts, arena speaking tours, columns in the broadsheets, and books published by Penguin Random House. 

Conservative culture war outriders

As Peterson would say, easy there, bucko… I’m not saying Pinkerson and his admirers are fascists. I’m not denying that the alt right and Pinkerson even have beef with each other. What I am saying is that Pinkerson is worth arguing with, precisely because he offers long-term validation to a raft of interrelated reactionary political positions, in a way that the alt right could never dream of doing. To take just one speculation: a successor conservative movement to Trumpism with appeal to many nominal centrists[3] would be one that retains Donald Trump’s break with political correctness, his antifeminism, his Islamophobia. But which obscures those views by stepping up the culture war rhetoric about free speech and identity politics on college campuses (about which Trump cares little), while striking a slicker “evidence-based” technocratic tone. If something like this emerged, Pinkerson’s followers would be model outriders, in the same way the alt right were for Trump.

Peterson and Pinker offer long-term validation to a raft of interrelated reactionary political positions, in a way that the alt right could never dream of doing.

Pinkerson, of course, prefers to frame his discourse as an inoculation against far-right politics that the ‘progressive’ mainstream fails to offer. Peterson defends his model of traditional masculinity on the grounds that, “if men are pushed too hard to feminize, they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology”, invoking Fight Club – as it happens a classic reference on the alt right – in illustration.[4] Pinker, speaking at an event run by the forum for right-ish contrarianism, Spiked Magazine, has described the young men of the alt right as “highly literate, highly intelligent people who ‘swallow the red pill’”, (an allusion to The Matrix, that has become popular among the alt right and the men's rights movement), “when they are exposed for the first time to true statements that have never been voiced in college campuses”.

Pinkerson’s supporters are quick to dismiss as guilt-by-association any attempt to follow the Ariadne thread from their own manner of making ‘true statements’ – about inherent psychological differences between the sexes for example – to the way identical statements get applied on the far right. But as Peterson himself puts it in 12 Rules for Life, “Lest We Forget: Ideas Have Consequences”.[5] Pinkerson has had flirtations with the ‘race science’ beloved of the alt right, promoting research arguing that Ashkenazi Jews have innately – on average – higher IQ. This is not the place for a comprehensive discussion of debates about IQ – how changeable it is in an individual’s lifetime, the relative influence on it of environment and genetics, the kinds of ability it can actually account for – but suffice to say Pinkerson is dismissive of the influential position of the palaeontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, that IQ is meaningful as a measure of specific learning problems and disabilities and not a lot else.[6] 

Explaining the Flynn effect, which shows IQ levels rising generation by generation, Pinker remarks that “an average person of 1910, if he or she had entered a time machine and materialized today, would be borderline retarded by our standards”.[7] To take only the field of creative literature, Pinker is invoking a 1910 in which Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Edith Wharton, and H.G. Wells were consorting as members of a unique minority who (clearly) were anything but “borderline retarded by our standards”, while surrounded by a mass population who were. The population, that is, that constituted their readership, the culture they drew upon and wrote about, and in Lawrence’s case, the poor nonconformist Christian mining community he grew-up in and was educated by. It might well have flattered the self-image of the at-times haughty intellectuals of the era, but no one who has dedicated study to early twentieth- (or nineteenth-, or eighteenth-) century culture would accept this differential. Either Pinker is misrepresenting the Flynn effect, or there are kinds of intelligence that IQ cannot account for.

As for the research on the IQ of Ashkenazi Jews, however compelling one finds it, it is certainly not something to endorse casually. The superficial compliment to Jews feeds readily into lending biological credence to racist stereotypes of deviousness, manipulativeness, or over-cerebral physical weakness. Not to mention the inference the argument leaves open that other racial groups might be accordingly predisposed to lower intelligence. As some alt right readers have not failed to notice, Pinkerson demurs coyly from comment on the latter point. Yet Pinkerson has no qualms about sharing a platform with the New Atheist Sam Harris who has pursued the rehabilitation of Charles Murray, a political scientist best known for his claim that the inequitable position of black people in American society is the result not of structural racism and economic inequality, but of inherently lower IQ.

As Pinkerson says, liberal thinkers must discuss and publicise these arguments, or they leave them to be interpreted and promoted in the most damaging ways possible by extremists. Unfortunately, Pinkerson belongs to a caste of public intellectuals uniquely ill-equipped to do any such work of countering extreme interpretations of science. In fairness, both Pinkersons have also cited the Ashkenazi Jews research specifically to refute the far-right idea of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. For both, there’s no need to resort to conspiracy theories, because Jewish overrepresentation in positions of power is exactly what you’d expect, given their biological predispositions. Yet what is revealing in Peterson’s case is the event that prompted him to publish this argument.

In footage jubilantly posted on alt-right.com, Peterson flounders when an alt-right audience member asks him what is to stop these hyper-intelligent Jews from seeking revenge on the countries that have historically mistreated them? Faced with what might have been a good opportunity to put clear blue water between himself and the accusations of far-right apologism that have followed him, Peterson can’t do it. In fact, after falling silent for some time, and then muttering, “it’s so difficult to disentangle”, he literally says “I can’t do it” (to admiring murmurs at his self-deprecation from the audience). The most generous reading is that he is unwilling to shift on his own position even when its conduciveness to the most obscene conspiracies is laid bare. The alternative is that he is saying to his fans that not even he can say that the anti-Semites are wrong. 

Pinkerson makes the caveat that everyone who uses this kind of argument makes: that “group differences, when they exist, pertain to averages, not to individual men and women. There are geniuses and dullards, saints and sinners, in every race, ethnicity, and gender”.[8] This is the statistical ‘bell curve’ argument (made famous in the context of IQ testing by Charles Murray’s 1994 book The Bell Curve, co-written with psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein). It is supposed to insulate the person making it from the charge of bigotry, since any individual Jew, person of colour, woman, or whoever, may be spared its inexorable conclusions if they are among the ample minority that don’t fit its general tendency. Fine: it’s not an argument for direct discrimination. What it threatens to become – and Harris sat there with Murray on his podcast while he advocated this – is an argument for indirect discrimination. The ostensibly benign and platitudinous argument that we have to be race- and sex-blind and treat everyone as individuals obscures its radical libertarian logic; really treating everyone as an individual would mean an end to affirmative action, all-women shortlists and other mechanisms set up to mitigate historical injustices that continue to affect the life chances of disadvantaged groups.[9] Does Pinkerson want this? The radical right certainly do. And framing debates about IQ as apolitical and ‘merely scientific’ hands them the justification.

A neoliberal double standard 

It wasn’t always like this. Pinker notes with satisfaction how the 1970s radical science movement in the US, with its twee promise to situate research in the “conscious application of Marxist philosophy”, looks “just embarrassing” today.[10]  

What if the erosion of the norm that scientists should be literate in working through the political consequences of their research, is part of our problem?

But what if the erosion of the norm that scientists should be literate in working through the political consequences of their research, is part of our problem? And what if it is not a coincidence that this political explicitness – this sense of transparent agonism and argument about science – has come to seem “embarrassing” precisely since the advent of big science in the 1980s, which made the social, political, and corporate good in scientific research indistinguishable? We are currently seeing in other areas of culture how neoliberalism’s diminishing of the scope of what was up for argument is now having the effect of giving rise to a powerful far right. Why not in science too?

Pinker’s 2002 book, The Blank Slate, was committed to overturning what it presents as the lingering influence of the idée reçue of the radical science movement: that culture trumps nature, and that anyone who makes the case for the influence of our genes and biological genders on our actions and social structures is a “genetic determinist”, a closet eugenicist, or a misogynist. Peterson, with less of Pinker’s zen agreeableness, refers simply to “the insane and incomprehensible postmodern insistence that all gender differences are socially constructed”.[11] The radical scientists Pinker criticizes had indeed feared that a new biological determinism was on the march, threatening to use developments in genetics to make existing inequalities of all kinds seem inevitable. (Darwin himself voiced just such an awareness of the political implications of his own work: “if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin”). But far from representing a straightforward relegation of biological factors below ‘social construction’, the radical science proposition was a drastic co-dependence of the biological and the cultural, referred to as dialectical biology.

This ranged from the macro perspective of Gould’s 1979 lecture in which he argued for a restatement of the theory of natural selection emphasising the place of randomness in it. Gould pointed to the evolutionary ‘survival’ of much that is useless, eccentric, or simply repurposed, not just of what is most aggressively or selfishly ‘fittest’[12]. And on the opposite end of the scale, the argument that environment influences the behaviour of DNA as much as DNA produces human life in the environment. Writing well after talk of dialectics had dropped out fashion, one of many up-to-date versions of the latter is found in the work of the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling. “We sometimes say that genes make proteins”, Fausto-Sterling observes, “but it is precisely such shorthand that gets us into trouble. Genes don’t make gene products. Complex cells do. Put pure DNA in a test tube and it will sit there, inert, pretty much forever. Put DNA in a cell and it may do any number of things, depending in large part on the present and recent past histories of the cell in question”. Whatever the extent of the genetic differences between us, the ways “events outside the body become incorporated into our very flesh” are so complex that inferring the permanence of social trends – and demarcating plausible futures – from genetic data can only be done on the back of a willful simplification.[13]

At times it seems like The Blank Slate’s problem is not so much with these ‘dialectical’ ideas in themselves, as with the fact (as Pinker sees it) that those who hold them tend to exaggerate how different they are from the alleged genetic determinists on Pinker’s own side. No “sane biologist would ever dream of proposing” that the influence of genes on “human behaviour is deterministic”, Pinker writes, “as if people must commit acts of promiscuity, aggression, or selfishness” if their genes ordain it. To the same effect, Pinker quotes the author of The Selfish Gene (to his critics, the genetic determinist par excellence), Richard Dawkins, responding to one definition of dialectical biology in sardonic agreement: “this seems to make a lot of sense. Perhaps even I can be a dialectical biologist”.[14]

Yet Pinker is wrong if he thinks no one is a genetic determinist and that arguing with its political implications is mere shadow boxing. In 1992, the Human Genome Project was announced by the geneticist Walter Gilbert who promised one would soon be able to hold a CD and say, “here is a human being – it’s me!”. Pinker plays down the misinterpretation such loose theatrics give rise to in the deterministic interpretation media reports typically give stories of the discovery of ‘a gene for’ homosexuality, obesity, musical genius, or whatever. Proper scientists, Pinker assures us, only mean it in a “non-reductionist, non-determinist” way.[15] And yet Gilbert’s metaphor was taken directly (with only a small technological upgrade) from Dawkins himself, who in The Blind Watchmaker described a flurry of willow seeds carried by the wind as “raining DNA”. The difference is, Dawkins didn’t regard it as a metaphor: “it is the DNA that matters. It is raining instructions out there. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs”.[16]

Even as Pinker downplays the ways in which the warnings of the dialectical biologists were in some ways salutary, it sometimes seems as if he can’t decide whether their work was just banally commonsensical, or preposterously outlandish. Having repeated Dawkins remark about being halfway a practitioner of it himself, we find Pinker scoffing elsewhere that “sufficient research to fill a first issue of Dialectical Biology has yet to materialise”.[17]

The problem with Pinkerson, then, is not that he believes our bodies influence our lives. We all believe that in some measure. It’s that when these thinkers try to use them to explain broad social phenomena (relations between the genders for example), they get stuck between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, they view genes as ‘instructions’, sufficiently self-contained that, as in Gilbert’s metaphor/non-metaphor, the instructions are the person themselves. On the other, these thinkers want to signal that – as good liberals – of course they believe in human freedom to defy genetic predisposition. As two veterans of the radical science movement, Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, have observed, the latter qualification is crucial to the self-presentation of thinkers like Dawkins and Pinker, even as it’s substantially irreconcilable with their theory. “When Pinker tells us that he can tell his genes ‘to go jump in the lake’, or when Dawkins escapes the tyranny of his selfish genes, by what process do they deny this genetic imperative? Is there a location within the brain, a gene for free will? Their sense of personal agency is everywhere evident, but their theory provides no explanation”.[18] 

Who decides which parts of nature we soberly adhere to, and which parts we daringly transcend? The lacuna couldn’t be clearer in the parts of 12 Rules for Life that repurpose evolutionary psychology into self-help. Male lobsters, as Peterson tells it, are subject to a self-perpetuating hierarchy of serotonin levels. The winners of the best mates and territories keep getting happier, better, and stronger, and keep winning more: the losers keep getting worse. “Maybe you are a loser; and maybe you’re not”, Peterson remarks to his male readers, in one of the motivational homilies that punctuate the book, “but if you are, you don’t have to continue in that mode. Circumstances change. If you slump around with the same bearing that characterizes a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status and the old counter that you share with crustaceans sitting at the very base of your brain will assign you a low dominance number”.[19]

Hierarchies are as old as crustaceans and yet any guy can be a high-serotonin alpha lobster if they pull their finger out, according to Peterson.

So are we bound by biology or not? The problem is actually located in the very genres of writing Peterson is working in. The kind of evolutionary pessimism that undergirds the argument is there to defend hierarchy as tragically permanent and unavoidable: these hierarchies are as old as crustaceans, and there’s to be no changing them now. The self-help/motivational frame, by contrast, is as sunnily Californian as can be – ‘You don’t have to continue in that mode!’ ‘Circumstances change!’ – any guy can be a high-serotonin alpha lobster if they pull their finger out. (Maybe there’s a hint of the grifting evangelical in this too: the other rubes will tumble down the dominance hierarchy, but you, by purchasing this book can be saved). Of course, the apparent conflict is actually not mysterious at all. For all Peterson’s eccentric blend of third-doobie-at-Bible-camp cosmic rambling and grandparental sounding off at too liberal divorce laws, ideologically speaking, this is just bog-standard neoliberalism.

You – the consumer-individual – have the freedom to transform yourself in any way you choose, but don’t get any funny ideas about using this newfound freedom to try to change anything systemic or structural. That I’m afraid, is permanently inscribed in nature. Take Peterson’s remarks on human damage done to the environment. The sternest disciplinarian when it comes to his readers’ diet, the tidiness of their rooms, and the corporal punishment of children, we find him the most groovy of safe space advocates for self-care when it comes to demands from environmentalists about the urgency of climate change: 

We’ve only just developed the conceptual tools and technologies that allow us to understand the web of life. Sometimes we don’t know any better. It’s not as if life is easy for human beings, after all. We do what we can to make the best of things, in our vulnerability and fragility, and the planet is harder on us than we are on it. We could cut ourselves some slack.[20]

Pinker wouldn’t countenance Peterson’s subsequent flirtations with climate change denial, and yet his tone when discussing environmentalism in his most recent book, Enlightenment Now, is more or less the same. “It’s time to retire the morality play in which modern humans are a vile race of despoilers and plunderers who will hasten the apocalypse unless they undo the Industrial Revolution”, announces Pinker, invoking a caricature which the environmentalist and journalist, George Monbiot, has shown to be based on exaggerating the significance of a few cranks and misrepresenting reputable sources.[21] This high-handedness is typical of Enlightenment Now, an enormous book which marshals graph after graph, table after table, to demonstrate that area after area of human wellbeing – health, sustenance, wealth, peace, safety, democracy – has, when taken in aggregate, been improving since the eighteenth century. The main audience thought to need these figures dumped on their doorsteps are those humanities scholars who have spent too much time with the Great Satan, despised by Pinkerson: “postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, self-refuting relativism, and suffocating political correctness”, populated by “morose cultural pessimists who declare that modernity is odious”. Yet what makes Enlightenment Now so exhausting is that every chapter seems to be jackhammering away at a position that virtually no one holds.

Pinker’s critics also tend to view the victims of present benightedness and injustice as more than just collateral damage the thrust of history has to overlook.

While some humanities scholars argue that Enlightenment modernity set the coordinates for colonialism and the Holocaust, all humanities scholars regard anaesthetic and the electric guitar as broadly good things. Most of the activists and cultural critics Pinker accuses of “morose cultural pessimism” don’t think that things don’t get better. It’s rather that they are legitimately angry about what happens when the polluters, invaders, and wealth hoarders who stand to gain from making them worse do get their way. These critics also tend to view the victims of present benightedness and injustice as more than just collateral damage the thrust of history has to overlook while getting other stuff sorted. As Samuel Johnson warned in his Review of Soame Jenyns, progress’s heralds can be so eager to explain away present suffering that they end up sounding like they approve of it, or at least like they think it couldn’t have been otherwise. We would regard Pinker reassuring a resident of Damascus, Tripoli or Gaza that war, disease, and slavery are happily on the decline worldwide as outright sadistic, if we imagined for a moment that the book was aimed at them.

Pinker periodically tips his hat to “arguments, activism, legislation, regulations, treaties, and technological ingenuity”, but the more usual impression is of a spectrally agent-less progress,”‘pushed along by the tide of modernity”[22]. This threefold erasure, of the surly malcontents who push for progress because the present palpably isn’t all it could be; of those whose interests lie ensuring its gifts are spread inequitably; and those occupying the bits of the graph where progress momentarily careers backwards, leaves us, in the end, with little more than a kind of tone policing – a headteacher’s irritation with ungrateful teenagers who don’t know they’re born. Or worse, a head prefect telling the other kids that the school hierarchy has gotten us this far and shouldn’t therefore be questioned. As John Ganz and Steven Klein put it, “the strange paradox we face today is that the Enlightenment is being invoked like a talismanic object to thwart the very questioning of political hierarchies and norms that, for Enlightenment thinkers, was necessary for humanity’s emergence from tradition and subordination”.[23] Such is the neoliberal double standard of Pinkerson and all their ilk: freedom for you, deference for the Ancien régime! 

The real reason liberals are no good at debating

The dynamic appeared yet again in Peterson’s much-discussed TV debate with the Channel 4 journalist Cathy Newman in early 2018. A large part of the discussion was given to the issue of the gender pay gap, with Newman citing the mere seven women CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, and the lower pay they receive relative to their male peers. Peterson’s reply calls on the bell curve argument, this time oriented not around IQ, but around genetically grounded personality traits, with women – not all women of course, but statistically speaking – more frequently manifesting combinations of traits that are ill-suited to the aggressive, individualistic work and long hours of a CEO. They are also more likely to have taken career breaks and reduced working hours in order to have children. Thus, any pay and status difference is the result not of institutional or structural prejudice, but of biology, and the mainstream aspiration of equality of outcome in pay between genders is a doomed one.

I want to describe the context in which I first heard this argument – indeed, heard it made repeatedly – during a summer spent listening to all the alt-right and alt-lite podcasts I could find, before I’d even heard of Peterson. While it will no doubt irritate Peterson’s more mainstream admirers, it gives another example of the Pinkersonian failure to ‘put the bottle stop in’ on extreme ideas in their orbit. Peterson’s view is that feminists are kidding themselves and us all when they demand equality of outcome for women, who are biologically ill-suited to ever come and claim it. What is more, in defying nature by telling women they had to aspire to join the competitive workforce at all, feminism has dismantled the right and inevitable ‘enforced monogamy’ of the traditional family. This is bread and butter to several branches of the alt right – especially its MRA and ‘incel’ (‘involuntarily celibate’) iterations – who consider the measure of financial autonomy afforded women by the modern workplace to have messed with the entire sexual ecology, since women no longer need a monogamously tied-in male for sustenance and protection, and so procreate outside this natural order or refuse to at all. A couple more red pills down, and we start hearing that this pattern has had disastrous ethnic consequences, because as whites breed less effectively, they no longer compete demographically with ethnic minorities. Knock back the bottle, and the ‘JQ’ (Jewish Question) is back in the picture, as Jewish elites welcome more culturally conservative minorities into feminised, socially liberal ‘white’ countries in a deliberate effort to crowd out the white gentile population.

Soooo… from making denial of the gender pay gap one of your signature talking points, to ‘white genocide’ in a few easy steps. The first step in this series of ideas (where we find Peterson) is an unremarkable enough form of sexism.[24] The problem is in pretending Peterson can turn this kind of antifeminism-lite into a political rallying point, and not risk offering credence to the subsequent extrapolations being made by others: indeed, often in the very algorithmic recommendations that follow Peterson’s own YouTube videos. 

In some ways it wasn’t surprising that Newman came off worse with Peterson. For all their hectoring of students ‘no platforming’ objectionable speakers and fantasies of defeating right-wing ideas with the pure light of reasoned argument, I don’t think mainstream liberals are very good at this sort of thing. The real problem is that these ‘debates’ between liberals and the right are again and again gone into with too many starting assumptions in common. To take CEOs as the representative or most important cases, as Newman and Peterson both intuitively do, is to betray a comparative indifference to the serious pay differentials within and between crucial sectors further down the social scale (indeed, often along racial as well as sexual lines). Differentials, that is, affecting far more actual women and not explainable by Peterson’s schema.

As the Labour MP Laura Pidcock has stressed, in a useful corrective to the mainstream tendency to view the pay gap ‘from above’: 

The success of elite women does not facilitate the emancipation of lower-paid sisters in the economy. Our obsession with boardrooms has not only failed to close the pay gap for working-class women, but produced another kind of pay gap - the gap between women at the bottom and women at the top. Professional women earn on average 80% more than unskilled women, while the difference between professional and unskilled men is still huge, at 60%.

Let us put aside our earlier criticisms of the biological determinism that permits Peterson to claim that women just naturally approach work differently. Even allowing this, he can’t explain why occupations therefore just naturally dominated by women – carework and cleaning at low-skilled level; secretarial and administrative for medium-skilled; teaching, nursing, and social work for high-skilled – are more poorly remunerated than those just naturally dominated by men at the same skill level.[25] He can’t explain why, since 1950, time after time when women have become more dominant in a sector they were hitherto underrepresented in, women and men’s wages have gone down in that sector.[26] And he can’t explain why part-time work, which 40% of women in the UK just naturally gravitate towards, should be dominated by ‘low value jobs’.[27]

When, as Pidcock recommends, we stop seeing the world through the eyes of the 1%, and start paying attention to the kinds of work most women perform, Peterson’s biological determinist view of women in work surprisingly becomes more – not less – proof of patriarchy in action. If, for reasons of biology, the jobs women do couldn’t be otherwise than female-dominated and women couldn’t simply take their labour elsewhere for the same reasons, then what justification is there for their lower pay? And if Peterson’s answer is the free market, then what gets called a free market starts to look more than a little like patriarchy. 

But “who decided, anyway, that career is more important than love and family?”, Peterson asks, “Is working eighty hours a week at a high-end law firm truly worth the sacrifices required for that kind of success?”.[28] Well quite. But as usual, serious replies come not from the ‘family values’ right, but from within feminism itself; albeit not always of Newman’s Lean In liberal kind. What we have seen to be an under-valuing of labour pertaining to social reproduction in the paid economy – the medical, caring, social, and educational work that goes into sustaining a population, and mainly done by women – has its concomitant in the unpaid part. As the socialist feminist Nancy Fraser puts it, capitalist economy can’t get by without “activities of provisioning, care-giving and interaction that produce and maintain social bonds”, and yet ordinarily, “it accords them no monetized value and treats them as if they were free”.[29]

This relation has reached a crisis point in our own neoliberal moment. As Fraser describes, post-war social democracy aimed to guarantee a ‘family wage’, policed by relatively strong unions, as part of an assumed norm which made women full-time caregivers within a nuclear family.[30] When, as feminists rightly demanded, women were given greater equality of access to the workplace from the 1970s, states were happy to use this as a progressive cloak for the decimation of unions and the abandonment of any guarantee of a family wage. Following this up since the millennium with a period of unprecedented falling wages, and a slashing of what remained of state assistance for care, we can start to understand the real reason the birth rate in the US and UK is declining. One partner’s wage is no longer guaranteed to provide the stability needed to raise children; but to care for children (or vulnerable adults), one partner must usually drop out of work. 

The neoliberal double standard of the Pinkerson mindset celebrates individual autonomy, while discrediting the kinds of collective and systemic action that would be necessary to realise such autonomy.

As we have seen, the neoliberal double standard of the Pinkerson mindset celebrates individual autonomy, while discrediting the kinds of collective and systemic action that would be necessary to realise such autonomy. In place of addressing material causes, Pinkerson prefers to point to biological inevitability for inequalities they approve of, and the histrionic mischief of progressives for those they don’t. While it is certainly unnerving how parts of their thought have the potential to embolden the far right, it may be that their greater long-term damage will be to have given a serious intellectual face to the most regressive conservatising instincts of centrism, and those parts of alt-right ideology that many centrists guiltily approve of. 

Many of Pinkerson’s supporters are no doubt sincere in their anger at how modern life prioritises waged work over family, and makes men work longer hours away from their children, with greater likelihood of injury (the common MRA response when the gender pay gap gets raised). To them I offer a hand, and say that instead of getting caught up in ‘culture wars’ distractions, they should be working with political movements that want to replace the existing ways of organising economies with “social arrangements that could enable people of every class, gender, sexuality and colour to combine social-reproductive activities with safe, interesting and well-remunerated work”.[31] These aren’t the words of any Pinkersonite, but of the feminist Fraser. And such a prospectus exists if we want it. As another feminist writer, Helen Hester has stressed, the priorities of safe, humane work and of giving people material support to make their own choices about children and care for old and sick families, run “like a red thread” through the movement that has emerged in the UK around Jeremy Corbyn, and equivalent left movements are rising across the West.[32] The ‘radical left’ that Pinkerson blames for what he perceives to be society’s problems are actually the only people offering solutions.



[1]
 I have been beaten to some of this focus by the discussion by Aimee Terese, ‘Deconstructing Liberal Intellectuals: Peterson, Harris, and Pinker’, Revolutionary Left Radio podcast, April 23rd, 2018 [https://revolutionaryleftradio.libsyn.com/deconstructing-liberal-intellectuals-peterson-harris-and-pinker].

[2] George Hawley, Making Sense of the Alt-Right (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), pp. 67-68.

[3] God knows plenty of them would back it over someone running on a Bernie Sanders-style platform.

[4] Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (London: Allen Lane, 2017), pp. 220-221; there is no consideration of what happens when men feel ‘pushed too hard’ to masculinize, and feel entitled to historical male privileges that don’t arrive. As Kate Manne uncovers, when Peterson quotes the writings of Eric Harris, the Columbine school shooter, he skips all evidence of Harris’s obsessive misogyny, making Harris’s crimes an articulation of universal, ungendered despair, rather than one of specifically male frustrated entitlement; ‘Reconsider the Lobster’, Times Literary Supplement, May 23rd, 2018 [https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/jordan-peterson-12-rules-kate-manne-review/]. 

[5] Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, p. 208; if Peterson can claim an intellectual coherence and political continuity between the Soviet gulags, the phenomenon of transgender identity, and French poststructuralist philosophy (quoting no thinkers directly, of course), then he might do well from time to time to read the comments that keep turning up under his own YouTube videos.

[6] Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (London: Penguin, 1981), p. 255. 

[7] Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (London: Allen Lane, 2018), p. 240.

[8] Steven Pinker, ‘Groups and Genes’ in New Republic, June 26th 2006 [https://newrepublic.com/article/77727/groups-and-genes].

[9] On the fallacy of race-blindness, see Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), p. 82.

[10] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (London: Penguin, 2002), p. 135.

[11] Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, p. 212.

[12] See Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promise of the New Biology (London: Verso, 2013), pp. 77-79.

[13] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 236-237, 238.

[14] Pinker, The Blank Slate, pp. 112-113. 

[15] Pinker, The Blank Slate, p. 114.

[16] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Norton, 1986), p. 111.

[17] Pinker, The Blank Slate, p. 135; that is, an academic journal of that name. The joke is the evolutionary psychologist, Martin Daly’s. 

[18] Rose and Rose, Genes, Cells and Brains, pp. 83-84.

[19] Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, p. 36.

[20] Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, pp. 201-202.

[21] Pinker, Enlightenment Now, p. 134; George Monbiot, ‘You Can Deny Environmental Calamity – Until You Check the Facts’, Guardian March 7th 2018 [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/07/environmental-calamity-facts-steven-pinker].

[22] Pinker, Enlightenment Now, pp. 406, 134, 221.

[23] John Ganz and Steven Klein, ‘A Serious Man’ in The Baffler, February 7th, 2018 [https://thebaffler.com/latest/peterson-ganz-klein].

[24] That said, there are jarring moments in 12 Rules for Life where the generous reader must suppress the suspicion that one is overhearing a little dogwhistle to people a few red pills ahead: as when Peterson reflects, in perfect MRA-speak, on a client who confessed to an emerging realisation that many of her sexual experiences had not been consensual: ‘drunk people get into trouble. They black out. They go to dangerous places with careless people. They have fun. But they also get raped’ (p. 165). 

[25] Ariane Hegewisch, Hannah Liepmann, Jeffrey Hayes, and Heidi Hartmann, ‘Separate and Not Equal? Gender Segregation in the Labour Market and the Gender Wage Gap’, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, September 2010 [https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/wpallimport/files/iwpr-export/publications/C377.pdf].

[26] Asaf Levanon, Paula England, and Paul Allison, ‘Occupational Feminization and Pay: Assessing Causal Dynamics Using 1950-2000 U.S. Census Data’, Social Forces 88:2 (2009), 865-891.

[27] Gavin Jackson, ‘Women More Likely to be Unemployed than Men’, Financial Times April 2nd 2018 [https://www.ft.com/content/98b3701c-335a-11e8-ac48-10c6fdc22f03].

[28] Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, p. 204.

[29] Nancy Fraser, ‘Contradictions of Capital and Care’, New Left Review 100 (2016), 99-117 (101).

[30] Even at the time, the racialised outsourcing of domestic labour this often involved in practice didn’t go unnoticed; see, Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (London: Verso, 2015 [1970]), p. 105: ‘the All-American Family is predicated on the existence of the black ghetto Whorehouse. The rape of the black community in America makes possible the existence of the family structure of the larger white community, just as sexual prostitution in general maintains the respectable middle-class family’.

[31] Fraser, ‘Contradictions of Capital and Care’ 116.

[32] Helen Hester, ‘The World Transformed Through Care’, Institute for Public Policy Research, October 10th, 2017 [https://www.ippr.org/juncture-item/the-world-transformed-through-care-by-helen-hester]; for an able navigation of the need to reconcile such demands to centre social reproduction and reproductive labour, with critiques of heteronormativity and ‘reproductive futurism’, see Hester’s Xenofeminism (Cambridge: Polity, 2018), chpt. 2.

About the author

J.A. Smith teaches at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Samuel Richardson and the Theory of Tragedy (Manchester UP, 2016), and Other People’s Politics (Zero, 2018).


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