Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel described the moment he saw Napoleon before the Battle of Jena in 1806 as witnessing the “World Spirit on Horseback,” meaning that Hegel saw the spirit of the times embodied. Undeniably, the culture, political ideology and geopolitics of the era were affected in one way or another by Napoleon.
This past weekend, I took a trip to Toronto to see a ‘debate’ titled “Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism,” between notorious hot dog double-fister Slavoj Žižek on the left and lobster aficionado Jordan Peterson on the right. Staged in a venue filled with the sounds of empty beer cans and the hooting and hollering of the audience, it was both entertaining and politically relevant; although, I would say it was a display of political theater rather than debate. But, witnessing this, I couldn’t help but imagine that this is what Hegel must have felt while looking at Napoleon — like I was observing a manifestation of the Hegelian Absolute: the Zeitgeist of the Moment. Of course, this is complete hyperbole and a joke, but within it, like all good jokes, there remains some truth.
For example, the very occurrence of this event is a reflection on what function or need Žižek’s and Peterson’s respective popularities among young people serves in our political moment; it reflects a collective sense of precarity, uncertainty and a desire for understanding. As such, Žižek versus Peterson was billed as the ‘Debate of the Century.’ However, this billing is a peculiar occurrence, as they are both dismissed by ‘official academia’ because both of them have open disdain for the liberal-left in their writings and public conduct.
But this is not to say they are ideologically identical. Thinking back to my Hegel joke, both Žižek and Peterson’s outward appearances can act as metaphors for their respective ideologies. Žižek –– like Marxism at first glance –– appears old, past his relevancy, hard to look at and, perhaps, even dangerous; however, within he holds a complex yet lucid critique of global capitalism. While Peterson — like reactionary conservatism — appears clean, stylish and dignified, with a closer look, one will find egoism, insecurity and a lack of political nuance. This lack of nuance was exemplified in Peterson’s entire (mis)understanding of Marxism during the debate being based solely on a political pamphlet from 170 years ago.
Peterson views what he calls ‘PC culture’ — moral degradation, consumerist hedonism and so on — as a decades-long ‘Postmodern Neo-Marxist’ conspiracy to infiltrate cultural and educational institutions. Peterson’s ‘clean-your-room’ praxis can be summarized easily: “I see that you are facing overwhelming structural problems, have you considered making better personal choices?” The limitations of Peterson’s clinical psychology remind me of a quote by Jiddu Krishnamurti: “It is no sign of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
However, Žižek also has a critique of PC culture but instead identifies these phenomena as a symptom of the “immanent dynamic of capitalist societies.” In fact, the identity-based political correctness that Peterson rails against cannot be considered Marxist, because, for the most part, its proponents do not want a radical restructuring of society, they want merely to virtue signal while maintaining existing social relations, i.e. “We need more black/women/trans/native CEOs!” For example, Bernie Sanders, one of the only U.S. presidential candidates who barely comes close to adequately addressing economic inequality, is attacked by the liberal-left for being a white male. Žižek suggests this “hyper-moralization is a silent admission of defeat” and utterly politically impotent, and I have to agree.
However, I would argue that Peterson, like millions in the West, has a caricatured understanding of Marxism as a result of at least a half-century of Cold War propaganda. Luckily, my generation has been — for the most part — spared of such incessant propaganda. If the problems of global capitalism can be remedied, the insights into the contradictions inherent in capitalism found in Marx must and will be part of the solution. In addition, as Žižek suggests –– because the influence of Hegel in Marx’s thought is paramount –– this return to Marx must be bolstered by a return to Hegel.