Zizek vs Peterson: a rundown of the debate

Tuesday, April 30, 2019


Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson are the superstars of contemporary philosophy. Each holds widespread recognition and a cadre of diehard supporters, alongside a plethora of enemies. Both sit at opposite ends of the political spectrum, Zizek the left and Peterson the Right. Yet as was clear in their highly anticipated debate, they sought out each other’s similarities, not differences. Nevertheless, the subject ‘Happiness, Capitalism and Marxism’ led to an interesting and lively event, with intriguing ideological clashes emerging from such differing worldviews.


This is intended to be a (relatively) brief, impartial view of the debate. With papers such as Jacobin using it as a frame for promoting ideological purity and others like Current Affairs equating watching it to a form of torture, there are plenty of opinions already out there. This article aims to give readers a quick and simple rundown of the meandering and often confusing discussions between these two academics.




There is one important thing that should be considered looking at the debate: both Zizek and Peterson made a lot of money from it. The event wasn’t set up so much as a desperate clamouring for an intellectual showdown, but rather a mutual agreement to satisfy the desires of both sets of fans. Neither wanted to risk their credibility, and so neither stuck their neck out as far as they might have otherwise.


The structure of the debate was set up as to be as placid as possible, and was more a friendly discussion than an argument. This certainly worked well and made for pleasant discussion, but it also explains some of the odd turns the debate took, where opposing ideas went completely unaddressed. Zizek gave an interview to RT a few weeks’ prior, stating that he did not desire to go up against Peterson in an all-out rhetorical battle. He feared he would either lose, or that their respective points be lost in argumentative bluster.


Zizek also added that his desire was to present a welcoming and interesting leftist voice to the many Alt-righters watching, who may have never come across such a well-articulated opinion in their own echo chambers. 


Opening remarks


Peterson’s primary reading for the debate centred around the Communist Manifesto, and he used this as a distinctive target for his broader attacks on Communism in general. He didn’t hesitate to mention the impressively persuasive rhetoric in the pamphlet, but any praise ended there. The broad strokes of his argument were polemical, a deft platform for his own views. As Peterson expressed, his worldview is that hierarchy is a naturally ordained state, omnipresent throughout nature.  Extrapolating from this, Peterson suggested we should look for the most natural hierarchies in human society, which he identifies as free market economics, as they lack the compulsion of force that once characterised hierarchy. Peterson asserted that this mode of economic hierarchy is the only viable vehicle for happiness.


Zizek was, as always, less straightforward in his remarks.


He opened by saying he looked forward to finding common ground with his opponent. His style was somewhat erratic and meandering, but covered more ground than Peterson. He openly asserted that happiness is a poor goal, citing that the authoritarian regime in china ostensibly runs for the ‘happiness of its citizens’. Zizek then dived in against Peterson’s teleological argument for capitalism, stating improvisation is what characterises nature, not hierarchy. He followed by saying he does not see capitalism as inherently evil, but feels that we must acknowledge that its remit does not encompass goals like combatting climate change, fighting fascism, and ending income inequality. Without concerted cooperation, Zizek does not think these issues can be solved.


Amongst the erratic prose, Zizek slipped in a Lobster joke and referred to Donald trump as “a fetish”.


Debate section


Jordan Peterson opened his response by expressing surprise, saying that he expected more of a defence of Marxism than an attack on capitalism. He said that he believed the commodification of life and environmental issues were a problem (although he disagreed on their scale), but that their solutions did not lie in economics, communist or capitalist. Holding capitalism and the wealth it brings as the best vehicle for happiness, he asserted that any other societal issues could be solved through a reinvigoration of Judeo-Christian values.


Slavoj Zizkek then cited the drastic variation between Nordic nations and Bangladesh. Zizek questioned the idea that wealth brings happiness (with the latter nation polling consistently happier than the former). He even mentioned how too much democracy (i.e. responsibility) can diminish our happiness, here citing his own experiences living in the Soviet Union, where any issues could find easy explanation (or excuse) in the sprawling bureaucracy. 


The rest of Zizek’s argument was characteristically jaunty, and he covered a vast amount of ground from the Yemen genocide to the finer points of Marxist theory on equality. All this reasserted his earlier point: the issues of today are unsolvable without cooperation; the forces of the market are not up to the task.


Questions between Zizek and Peterson 


Peterson opened with a shower of compliments for Zizek. However, noticing the somewhat heterodox nature of Zizek's Marxism, he questioned the use of the ideology.


Zizek admitted to the flaws in Marxist writings, despite finding it an incredibly useful theory. He reiterated that he is primarily a follower of the German idealist philosopher Friedrich Hegel, and that Marxism is the best vehicle for this philosophy. Hegel, Zizek posited, provides a radical openness, where possibilities abound.


Peterson asked another question: “do you worry that promoting Marxism brings with it a dangerous and violent radicalism?”.


To this, Zizek provided perhaps his most memorable response, replying with the question “where are the Marxists?”. Peterson fumbled a bit, before they both began to debate upon the prevalence of Marxist philosophy, and if it is at all comparable to postmodernism.


Audience Questions


The first question they received was “What does deeper human happiness consist off”. The initial thrust of reply from both debaters was almost total agreement; happiness is to both men always a side effect of a virtuous life. Although both voiced differing ideas of what this virtue might be and of the specifics of reaching happiness, neither Zizek nor Peterson contested the other's ideas, offering what appeared to be tacit consent to each other.


While they seemed to agree on the former points, Zizek later questioned the personalisation of societal issues that Peterson's worldview espouses. Peterson went into detail about his archetype theory (heavily inspired by Karl Jung), claiming the fallen man archetype is what primarily characterises our existence, an existence of suffering. According to Peterson, such an inherent psychological state does not just mean we should first look to a personal solution to societal issues, but that we can only solve these issues personally. Zizek disagreed, and saw this as the pervasive infiltration of extra-personal ideology into our individual lives.


The last question presented to Zizek and Peterson was: “what is one thing you hope people will leave this debate with? And why?”


Peterson answered that he hoped this debate had proven that dialogue and communication between people with differing views (even radically opposed) can still lead to fruitful discussion and rapport. He made mention that this lesson should be particularly heeded by the intellectual culture of universities.


Zizek replied that he hoped this has shown a lot of people (mentioning the Alt-right specifically) that there is more to politics and philosophy than simply a mythical battle between political correctness and conservatism. He asked for more curiosity and the transcending of simplified ideological camps, finishing his statement by saying “don’t be afraid to think”. 

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