Socialism or barbarism?

3 Jul

I just spent ten minutes watching a conversation, on a Youtube clip entitled “The Absurdity of Socialism”, between Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson. Here it is:

I’m going to assume, out of kindness and a degree of respect for Mr Peterson, that the title was not his idea since the video as shown above never comes close to doing what it says on the tin. But I watched it in full and want to say two things about it.

One, I do not deem Jordan Peterson a major thinker; rather, a clever and articulate man enjoying (like Stephen Pinker) his moment in the sun. He shines the way a man with a half baked grasp of political reality will  shine in the company of political illiterates. His targets – he calls them the Left; I do not – are a mix of (a) youth rebelling as youth will, (b) the insanities of postmodernism and (c) the absurd yet predictable logic of what a far more trenchant – and for that reason less feted – critic, Michael Parenti, calls the “competition of oppression” borne of identity politics. 1

Two, because both Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin advance strawman arguments – and here too I’ll be charitable and infer confusion rather than mendacity – I have to agree with many of the narrow truths on offer.

As when (at 2:33) Dave Rubin rolls out his killer question for Western audiences:

is there anyone here in this room tonight worse off than their grandparents?

It works every time, he says. Well of course it will! His point is a slam dunk given his Western middle class constituency. 2 As a matter of fact, in a post two years ago – Portrait of the artist and his old man – I make it myself within the context of my own family. But in an exchange of comments below that post, I also say this:

Misconceptions about socialism are endless. Most pernicious is the idea that capitalism’s inequities stem from unfair wealth distribution, rather than insane relations of production we’ve all come to see as normal.

In short, Dave Rubin’s “killer” question is a great one for what Marx called ‘vulgar socialists’ (whose name is legion). But as rebuttal of the thesis that things are bad and getting worse, it is itself easily rebutted by those who have done what scientists are supposed to do; namely, not take surface appearances at face value but lift the bonnet and look more deeply into underlying structures and laws of motion. Those who do so – starting with how profits, which after all are the engine driving the global economy, actually arise – will see just why  the world has for well over a century faced the starkest of choices: move rapidly towards wealth creation planned by and for humankind, else face barbarism.

Which brings me to Jordan Peterson. He too makes excellent points about Western radicals wanting to tear everything down with only the haziest sense of how to replace it. And I’m with him 100% on the importance in jurisprudence of the presumption of innocence. He doesn’t say so here but, given his well known views on a politically correct ‘woke’, I’ve no doubt he shares my alarm, raised in several of my posts, at #Me2 willingness to let social media be judge, jury and executioner. Ask Kevin Spacey. Ask Cliff Richard. Ask Woody Allen.

Above all, ask Julian Assange.

But Mr Peterson shows no sign of understanding how capitalism, hence modern imperialism – see my recent post on the invisibility of empire – actually works. His readings of history are therefore skewed by idealism. Like Stephen Pinker he is taken in by what seems to be one long, messy and bloody – yet for all that, upwards and onwards – march toward the sunlit heights of human betterment. And like all idealists (I use the word in its epistemological sense) he fails to see, despite mountains of evidence past and present, that those who rule and most benefit from a profit driven world will do whatever it takes to preserve the same, and their position in it.

Whatever it takes …

… as those with eyes to see – and who prioritise hard evidence over the (almost) overwhelming power of ridiculous but deeply embedded narratives – can detect in Ukraine.


I’ll close with a personal confession. What follows makes no attempt at objectivity. I speak only of my private fears and revulsions.

Though we’re all of us on the same fragile life raft – let’s call it the human condition – each of us has his or her own special dread. Mine is not of a nuclear war after which, as Mr Kruschev put it, “the living will envy the dead”. Nor of a protracted – ‘slowly boiling frog’ – extinction event in which I, those I love and/or those yet to be must do the unthinkable and – we should not underestimate our hard-wired will to survive – endure the unendurable.

No, my nightmare is of the collapse of a rule of law whose importance I have come, like Jordan Peterson, to respect immensely: notwithstanding its violations in the West, and glaring absence in an imperialised Global South. That collapse may be slow: the result of a shrinking state as the privileged withdraw into gated communities – their perimeters protected by IDF trained private police forces – while the hordes without know only the law of the jungle.

Or it may come more rapidly and deliberately as, when push comes to shove, our rulers do what ruling classes always do (think Britain’s use of the Black and Tans on an Ireland yearning for its freedom; think US weaponising of jihad in Syria, of neo-Nazis in Ukraine) and unleash whatever mad dogs are to hand.

Either way, social collapse is the spectre most likely, on a bad night, to stalk the badlands of my imagination …


That said, I see the sun shining through my window, my dogs getting antsy for a walk. Yesterday I saw Good luck to you, Leo Grandeagain.  So why the glum face? You bet I’m better off than my grandparents – apart, that is, from having tasted the fruit of a Tree of Knowledge to which their lives of drudgery denied them access.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

* * *

  1. For the context of Michael Parenti’s observation, see my April post: What about those too tired to have sex?
  2. Western labour sellers of white or blue collar stripe have until recently enjoyed greater prosperity than their grandparents at the expense of the imperialised global south, and courtesy a cold war which obliged Western capitalism to make ideologically driven concessions. The gains for labour under these conditions, though heavily eroded by four decades of neoliberalism, have not been completely reversed – yet.  But this is beyond the ken of Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin precisely because their empiricist approach takes surface appearances at face value, and does not ‘look under the bonnet’.

10 Replies to “Socialism or barbarism?

  1. “as the privileged withdraw into gated communities, their perimeters protected by IDF trained private police forces.”

    Unfortunately for the privileged, they, and any ‘private police forces’ still have to eat and drink etc. If the people who provide those necessities are either unable to, or cease to manufacture them, or better, cease to provide them, then the privileged will die – especially as they are a small minority.

    Of course that implies a possibly more extreme situation than you are envisaging 🙂

  2. I kept seeing that Jordan Peterson video popping up on my feed. At which point I must confess my ignorant Luddite arrogance. I have no idea how these service providers work though I get the jist that they latch on to your browsing history and try to dredge up what they think might be “up your street”. Amongst this “helpful” deluge you are extremely unlikely to encounter anything genuinely Marxist. There’s a “chat” site called Quora that cheerfully dumps such headers as “Was Marx Right About Anything?” and “Why Was Communism So Evil?”

    So when I saw the drearily predictable Peterson header, “The Absurdity of Socialism” I didn’t rise to the bait.

    I no longer harbour any ill will against Peterson and his ilk. I daresay they play the academic stage re-cycling their “hits” – though for sheer chutzpah none of them can match the exaggerated Slavic mannerisms of Zizek.

  3. “is there anyone here in this room tonight worse off than their grandparents?”
    Maybe not so much in the West, though that may be about to change. In the parts exploited by the West for wealth extraction maybe more.

    • Maybe not so much in the West, though that may be about to change …

      Exactly. I haven’t the stats to hand but I’ve heard our children’s generation – never mind that of their children – will enjoy lower life expectancy than my own. And that was before the seismic events of 2008 (accelerating the ‘austerity’ agendas which enabled capital to increase its share of wealth relative to labour) and of 2022 (with living standards for the many set to plummet as a result of Europe’s disastrous economic war on Russia).

      As for the global south, while the immediate future looks uncertain, I sense a glimmer of hope in Eurasia rising, in Belt and Road, and in the growing availability to imperialised nations of developmental loans which, unlike the highly conditional loans of IMF and World Bank, are not calculated to further indebt them and drive privatisations welcomed with open arms on Wall and Threadneedle Streets.

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