I’m Afshin Rattansi and you’re watching a lockdown season finale of ‘Going Underground’ during and after coronavirus lockdowns, right around the world, impacting on all our lives, who better than to speak to the most influential public intellectual in the Western world, according to the New York Times.
Professor Jordan B. Peterson, author of new work ‘Beyond Order’ joins me now from Toronto in Canada. Jordan, thanks so much for coming back on the show. I’ve got to say you look very well – I know there’s been a lot of pain, it’s in the prologue to the book. You’re doing a podcast with your daughter Mikaila, but, I suppose I should ask how Covid influenced the writing of your latest book, first of all.
Well, I suppose as I was in isolation, along with everyone else, it gave me more time. Other than that, it’s had a profound effect on everyone’s sense of their own fragility and mortality, and certainly that was the case.
I spent a lot of time locked down with my elderly parents, and so for me, and for everyone else, pandemic brings our vulnerability closer to heart. And it also, I suppose, increased the degree to which I was appreciative of having people around and family around. But, I certainly don’t think that reaction is unique to me.
This book ‘Beyond Order’, compared to the last one, concentrates more on the importance of interpersonal relationships in the maintenance of our health, and as a contributor to our general sense that life is worth living. And so I think at least in part, because of the COVID lockdown, the book perhaps has a warmer tone in some way.
I should say that I heard you recently say that a network TV interview can’t do justice often, not only perhaps to do your own work, but to lots of work. We often talk about the nature of television and its inability to explain more complex ideas.
I really noticed the difference between talking to formal TV journalists of the old school and the newer podcast and YouTube channel journalists who are used to having that expansive time to let things go where they’re going to go, and, there’s also a permanency associated with it that’s new. So a lot of it’s a technological consequence. For the longest time, there was a very few number of companies that had an iron lock hold over video technology. And of course it wasn’t permanent, as well. A
nd so television journalists couldn’t be given free rein in some sense because the medium itself was such an expensive mode of communication and any risk of failure was – well, any error could bring with it catastrophic risk. And so, generally, I felt when I was talking to old school TV journalists in particular that they were there as the representative of the organization rather than there as a human being, having a conversation. So the newer forums allow for that and I’m hoping that’s an improvement.
I have to ask about – I’ll jump through to rule eight because I think the aesthetic experience has been emphasized by many people as regarding getting through this pandemic in their isolation.
It’s a mystery, in some sense, why we’re so attracted to beauty or even the beauty is something that we appreciate and experience and define and philosophize about. Its instantaneous, practical utility isn’t obvious, but its economic value is disproportionately large.
I mean, every time I go to Europe, I’m struck by the beauty of the architecture and the culture, of course as well, the fine art element of the culture, but we could stick to architecture.
I mean, people from all over the world make pilgrimages to Europe, essentially because of the spectacular beauty of its towns and cities. And there’s something about beauty that reminds us constantly in a way that can’t be subject to simple criticism, that life is deep and worth living. And there’s something about harmony of form and nobility of aim and the creative striving and daring that I guess speaks to what’s best in us and encourages it to manifest itself. And we can’t live without that.
There’s something in us that always wants us to move beyond where we are and to aim for something higher and nobler and beauty seems to be something that marks the way, and because it’s not susceptible to rational criticism, it’s quite reliable as a source of continued intrinsic meaning.
I think people experience this most particularly in relationship to music, which as an art form I think has a disproportionate effect on our culture – especially given that it’s not easy to point to the practical significance of music, but certainly for decades, music has been the primary cultural center for young people.
Again, for reasons that aren’t clear; but music speaks of patterns, the intermingling, the harmonious intermingling of patterns, the arrayed ordering layer by layer with the addition of voices and the world itself is made out of patterns, and so music is a representation of the world, but in some sense it’s a representation of the world as it could be, or as it should be.
And there’s something in us that absolutely needs that, and it bolsters us against the fragility of our lives and our own vulnerability. And so it’s interesting that you picked chapter eight because I would say that’s the chapter I’m probably most pleased with from my last two books about meditation on beauty and it’s import.
And so it’s a call, I suppose, to people who are even thinking in purely economic terms, practical terms that, you know, man does not live by bread alone and that’s as true as anything that’s ever been said. And you make a relationship with beauty in your own house, for example, if you buy a piece of art, a genuine piece of art that speaks to you, you let something that’s transcendent and that’s a portal in some sense to the divine, you let that into your house and then you let that into your life. And that can have a transforming effect. It’s nothing to be taken lightly.
I’m sure the economic impact will have intellectual property lawyers talking about it. But of course, I mean, music is rebellion for young people, more often than not. I am speaking to you from South London, home to drill music. You in your book talk about Beethoven; certainly the art that you’ve chosen to mention, to quote, in the latest book, Blake, known for his revolutionary sympathies; Wordsworth, the earlier Wordsworth of course recording the French revolution.
I brought it into my home, actually, some French revolutionary art here, Delacroix, Goya, Pollock, a member of the communist party, Picasso, a member of the communist party all his life, refused to give up the card even when he heard about the Soviet Union. Why do you think so many artists, writers, musicians would go against your – and you’ll probably mention what they are, rules 6, 11, 12, 7, 4 – art, music, these are by revolutionaries, often those sympathizing with the works of Karl Marx.
Well, I think that whenever artists subjugate their art to politics, they’re subjugating the higher to the lower. It’s almost always a mistake. I mean, we don’t remember Picasso because he was a communist. His political interests in some sense are of no more interest than anyone else’s political interests. He didn’t have anything to say as a communist that 150,000 other communists couldn’t say, but he definitely had something to say as an artist.
And I mean, we see this intermingling in our culture of political expression and artistic expression, but it’s been the rare artist that I’ve listened to, who isn’t on shaky ground, as soon as he moves or she moves out of, his or her, what would you say, stellar domain and descends into the world of politics.
And I would also say that if an artist is genuinely possessed by the creative spirit, they cannot put what they’re doing into words. Not explicitly, they can’t render it into a philosophy or an ideology that that’s propaganda. In my estimation, the artist is someone who’s on the cutting edge of the development of thought; their own thought might trail that, but their creative thought is it is a vanguard.
That’s I suppose to some degree why they have some affinity for more revolutionary brands of political thinking, is because the creative spirit itself is part of the eternal source that renews everything. And so there is a revolutionary element to it. It’s easy to confuse that with revolutionary politics as such, but art is so much more revolutionary than political revolution that they’re not even in the same category, as far as I’m concerned.
You don’t think that Guernica means a lot to those being bombed by British backed planes in Yemen today? Beethoven and Goya, we know how [for] these artists, the French revolution was so inspirational. And in this book, you quote at length William Blake, arguably one of the most revolutionary poets Britain has ever produced. He wanted revolution. I mean the song, the words to ‘Jerusalem’, of course.
Well Guernica for example, it speaks of the horror of war, the chaos and horror of war. And that’s something that can be experienced regardless of the cause of the war, let’s say. I mean, strife and warfare are existential constants, right, insofar as Guernica is an immortal work of art. It speaks to everyone who suffered as a consequence of war and the political reasons for it are secondary.
I’m not sure whether Picasso would have liked Franco’s troops to enjoy or be illuminated by Guernica as…
But, you can imagine that anyone who’s had a loved one, say, hurt in a war, in a battle, in a bombing, could look at the anguish that’s in that painting and see a reflection of what’s happening in their own soul. I mean, and regardless of your political perspective, war is a catastrophe, right? It’s a catastrophe for everyone involved.
And I know you can sort wars into justifiable and non-justifiable wars. And I’m certainly aware that there are tyrants and noble revolutionaries, but art speaks to the universals of human experience outside of the political domain. And I think that’s true, regardless of the stated political belief of the artist. I really do think, and I think this psychologically, as well as, we approach the unknown with various tactics, let’s say.
You can express what you feel about something you don’t understand through dance. And you might say, well, you could render that into a political statement and perhaps the dancer would be inclined to do that. But that doesn’t mean that that’s what the dance was about. If you know what it’s about and you can render it into a political statement, you don’t have to dance, you don’t have to sing. These are forms of exploration, let’s say.
Echoing in effect the Marxist thinker György Lukács, who preferred Balzac, a conservative, to revolutionary Stendhal. I think why politics, it’s a very political book, what you’ve written. I mean, you assume in the book that Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche foresee catastrophe in Russia and China.
I mean those two countries, when you talk about war; Russia, arguably saved the world from Nazism in the Second World War and China, more people brought out of poverty than in all of human history, 800 million. And during the Covid pandemic, we’ve seen how much more efficient they have been than other countries saving their populations from the virus.
Well, China has lifted people out of poverty, but at an immense cost. I mean, the estimates for deaths during Mao’s reign, somewhere between 60 and 100 million, and China didn’t lift people effectively out of poverty, except insofar as they adopted reasonable free market reforms. And most of the improvement has been generated in the last two or three decades.
And so I certainly don’t think that you can justify the excesses of the Chinese communist party by pointing to their relatively late and derivative success. And of course the role the Russians played in stopping Nazism, well, that’s indisputable, but it’s not as if the Russians weren’t suffering from equivalent horrors on their own home front.
Especially between 1919 and 1959, it was cataclysmic. What happened in the Soviet Union was absolutely cataclysmic and that, well, the rest of the world, the Western world let’s say, was lifting itself out of poverty without the necessity for internally produced repression and mass death.
I mean, look at the difference between South and North Korea, that’s as stark a demonstration as you could possibly hope for. It’s, North Korea is not even lit up at night. They can’t generate any electricity. Everyone’s starving.
In fairness, North Korea, 20% of its population was killed by the United States and Britain in that war. Professor Jordan Peterson, I’ll stop you there, more from the author of ‘Beyond Order’ after this break.
Welcome back to this ‘Going Underground’ lockdown season finale. I’m still here with Professor Jordan Peterson, author of ‘Beyond Order, 12 More Rules for Life’. Class war is used in this book as the wrong way personally, to live, to live your life.
You say inequality is immutable, a Pareto distribution, no matter what guns you use, what strike action you use as a trade unionists, you cannot alter an immutable distribution of inequality.
Well, you certainly can’t alter it by assuming that the inequality and distribution is a secondary consequence of capitalism. I mean, it’s not like I don’t take the problem of inequality seriously. I take it far more seriously than Marxist thinkers because they attribute it to capitalism, which is completely preposterous. It’s so simple-minded and backwards. And the worst of that is it does such a terrible disservice to the poor.
I mean, we have two problems economically speaking in the broadest sense. One is the problem of absolute privation. It would be best if everyone had enough to eat and that’s something that could be measured perhaps by something approximating an average. And then you have the problem of the distribution around the average and the problem of relative poverty. And that’s also a problem.
And I do believe that the left-leaning political thinkers properly address the problems of relative privation. And that’s useful. It’s useful. I’ve never said that the left doesn’t have an important role to play in the political discussion, especially with regards to giving a credible voice to the working class.
It’s the excesses, it’s the ideological excesses of the leftist utopians that I object to. And the inability of the moderate left to draw a dividing line between what’s acceptable, say, in relationship to democratic socialism and trade unionism, and those things that have brought benefits to many places, including Canada, and the excessive utopianism of the radical leftists, which is where the danger lies.
You debated some of our guests. I mean, Marx loved capitalism. The ‘Communist Manifesto’ is a paean how he loved capitalism. So I’m not sure he was ignorant of the great way forward that capitalism struck.
If you put your psychoanalytical hat on, could it not be exhortative? I mean, it’s not about – because people have often said, Where is all this stuff about what this future society is supposed to look like?
It’s not in Marx. It’s how we must progress as a society, just as capitalism was from feudalism. I mean, can you not see it as exhortative?
There is an element that’s exhortative, but there’s also the element that calls for bloody violent revolution. And we’ve seen the consequences of that. You know, in this debate I had, I just cut the first 15 minutes out of that, which is a critique of the ‘Communist Manifesto’, I was taken to task by those who are displeased with me for not concentrating on Marx’s more major works, but since this was the pamphlet that lit the world on fire, I thought it was an appropriate place to start.
While I was running through the critique and pointing out that it was a call to bloody violent revolution, the audience, many people in the audience started to cheer and clap, and it took me back. I was silent for about 15 seconds because I thought, well, you reveal your hand exactly there. It’s like, are you so much for the poor, or are you just waiting for the bloody violent revolution?
Arguably, we couldn’t speak to each other without bloody revolutions in the past. I just ask the relevance about this in relation to this book because often it may seem to some people as a Marxist liberation theory, as the Catholic Church pervades in Latin America.
You talk about the importance of Christ’s teachings and the importance of conscience, and always fighting for your own conscience. These kinds of ideas, of course, Che Guevara writes about in his diaries.
Well, I wouldn’t consider him a particularly positive example personally, to say the least, I mean, I’m more concerned and concerned in the book with people’s individual relationship with their conscience. I’ve been criticized for ignoring social inequality, but I’ve never asked anyone in my writings or in my lectures to ignore broader societal concerns. I just ask people to take control of what they can in fact control and take responsibility for their own personal ethic.
I talk about conscience in the book because it’s quite a mystery and it’s a mystery that points to the fact that we don’t seem to be masters in our own houses. Just something that struck me very hard as a psychologist and a thinker. Nietzsche believed that because the slats had been kicked out underneath our Judeo-Christian substructure, let’s say, with the death of God, that we would have to create our own values. The problem with that is it doesn’t seem like a tenable solution because we seem to be accountable to forces within us that aren’t under our own control.
So if you could create your own values, you have to ask yourself, “if you’re capable of creating your own values, why would you be tormented by your conscience?” Your conscience seems to speak to you and in something approximating the voice of transcendent morality. It’s not that straightforward because it’s not like it’s omniscient, but it’s still an inescapable voice.
There have been parallels drawn by religious thinkers between the voice of conscience and the voice of God, or the spirit of Christ speaking within the Judeo-Christian tradition. And we do internalize ideals and they do judge us despite our best intent. And there’s something about that which is ineluctably real and inescapably powerful and also extraordinarily useful. And so it’s a mystery, right? Conscience is a mystery. And I don’t think there is anything more important in life than your relationship with your conscience.
But in this book, you say that, and I mean, critics may say you’re the ideal intellectual for the powerful elites who want to promote their views as you don’t promote revolution, but actually in what you just said, you don’t think someone reading this book – and I think the book will sell – will be inspired by what you say about conscience.
Well, I don’t think there’s any more revolutionary act than telling the truth. You know, my books support the elite? I don’t think that’s true in the least, except insofar as the elite, to whatever degree the elite are supported by truth, I’m asking people to pay attention. It isn’t me that’s asking, I’m making the case that it’s important to pay attention.
I mean that you argue for incremental change rather than revolution, and claim that political temperament is biological. These sorts of ideas, they suit elites because they don’t want people getting too violent.
I want to ask you one thing, which relates to all of this in a way, what is the Codex Bezae which you mentioned in this book, which seems to reveal this tension between conservatism and revolution.
It’s an apocryphal, religious tract, but it contained a particularly interesting take on the utility of breaking rules. And so there’s a story in that particular codex.
If I remember this correctly about Christ rescuing a sheep, that’s trapped in a pit on the Sabbath; observing someone, rescuing a sheep, who’s trapped in a pot in the hot sun during the Sabbath and the shepherd is taking the sheep out of the pit.
And Christ says to him, “if you know what you’re doing, you’re blessed. But if you don’t, you’re a transgressor of the law and you’re cursed.” And it struck me, that particular statement, because it’s an incredibly sophisticated take on morality and rules.
The gist of the story is that there’s a reason for the Sabbath, right? To keep it holy, let’s say, perhaps everyone needs a break once a week or something like that for society to remain stable and for people to remain healthy, but maybe there are conditions under which that – the prohibition of labor on that day can be reasonably suspended.
And so if the shepherd is, what would you say, empathetic towards the suffering of his sheep and he understands the utility of the Sabbath rules, and he holds them sacred as do other people in his culture, but then decides that the higher order principle demands this particular effort, then he’s transcended the law and is acting as a higher moral agent, then so he’s blessed, but if it’s just casual dismissal of a social sanction, because of narcissism or selfishness, then it’s something that’s cursed. And that’s why I used that particular story. And we see this tension all the time in popular literature.
And I know you mentioned Pinocchio in the book also. But I mean, just some quick practical advice, what do we do when our leaders are lying to us? I know you were in Moscow, Edward Snowden had to flee the United States after revealing surveillance.
Julian Assange is up the road here in London, being tortured, according to the UN by UK authorities, for revealing again, truths about our leaders. What should we do individually when we think that our leaders are lying to us?
Well, it’s hard to tell what each person should do individually, because that’s always so much dependent on the particulars of their life. I don’t believe that people should ignore political affairs, but I believe that if you’re going to move into the political realm, you should do what you can to get your own psyche in order. So you want to prepare to take on the political world.
Well, you want to make yourself into the sort of person who’s going to be capable of using power wisely instead of using it in the manner that you’re decrying with regard to your criticism of the current leaders. That’s no simple thing.
And it certainly, isn’t going to be attained by your casual adoption of an ideology that’s shared by millions of other people, and that has nothing of you in it. And it’s certainly not going to be improved by your proposition, let’s say that all of the evil that bedevils mankind can be attributed to the current elite, ruling class, or something like that.
It’s just not helpful. It’s nowhere near sophisticated enough to solve any real problems. And then you have to think, well, those people who became tyrants when they were granted power, what makes you think they’re so different than you?
You say that it’s not a matter of opinion that politics is based on this inborn temperament. I mean 50 million people in the United States dependant on food stamps tonight.
I’m talking to you from where there are food banks around the corner, the environmental catastrophe; you don’t believe it is a class war. Can you see why that would benefit those at the top?
I don’t believe that inequality is generated by capitalism. Fundamentally there’s obviously stress and strain between…
It could be a feudal system right now, or a Soviet, communist system; your work is saying don’t single out one particular thing. In fact, you actually say “beware of intellectuals who make a monotheism out of their motivation.” I mean, arguably you talk about monotheism in the book and arguably do that to us, as the reader.
But I don’t do it politically. Now that’s the thing.
Isn’t everything political?
I don’t believe so. No, not at all. I think that political politics has its place, but no, there’s all sorts of things. This is what’s interesting about our culture, is that that proposition, people put that forward as if it’s a revealed truth. It’s like, no, why would everything be political? Everything isn’t economic. I mean, life is very diverse and beauty isn’t political. Music isn’t political. Love isn’t political.
Well, let’s finish on love then. Professor Peterson, thank you. That’s it for this show and for this season. We’ll be back on May 12 for a new series with a new look.
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