Jordan B. Peterson has been described as the most influential thinker in the West. His book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos has been an instant best-seller, despite being described by Guardian columnist John Crace as a “pseudointellectual ideology.” Peterson has been making waves for a while now, with his series of YouTube lectures in which he deconstructs the deconstructivist ideologies of Marxism, post-Marxism and post-Structuralism to their basic principles, before showing where they got things wrong. In general, he is an empirical observer of the reality of mankind, taking facts and data into account to explain society. His fame in Britain really took off after his interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman, in which he quite stoically refused to have his phrasing twisted, misrepresented or taken out of context, at one point reducing Newman to silence for roughly thirty seconds – a lifetime on-screen.
I am not a psychologist, and won’t pretend to be, so this article cannot go anywhere towards addressing his psychological theses; instead, I engage in political theory (though I would not all myself a political theorist) and so I feel somewhat more qualified to comment on one of his more recent lectures from midway through last year, “12 Principles for a 21st Century Conservatism”. The full video is contained in the above hyperlink, but be warned – it is (typical of Peterson) two hours long, though Peterson does not begin until roughly eighteen minutes.
Peterson is not himself a conservative; he describes himself more typically as liberal (which perhaps speaks to the truth of conservatism as the more liberal of ideologies today). However, for the interested reader who might be confused by this, I have attempted below to explain his 12 Principles, and comment on them where I can.
- The fundamental assumptions of Western civilization are valid.
There is no doubt this belongs at the top of the list; the West is criticised almost constantly in academia, and blamed for solely producing all the evils of the world – despite, more often than not, producing the remedies to those evils just the same. But frankly, it is the institutions of the West that have allowed those remedies to emerge, and have built up a society that is self-critical, conscientious, tolerant for the most part, secure and wealthier than any other society in history.
And what’s more, “civilisation” as a term is a generally objective one that can be ranked; it is harder to say the same of “culture”, though some people certainly try, but where civilisation refers to the harmonious cohabitation of people, the objective standards of living that have emerged in the West (and only recently historically won, it must be remembered), and the careful processes of introspection and self-correction that have manifested themselves in the processes of democracy, judicial review and the rule of law, we can safely say that Western civilisation is at the very least valid, if not the best.
- Peaceful social being is preferable to isolation and to war. In consequence, it justly and rightly demands some sacrifice of individual impulse and idiosyncrasy.
I have attempted elsewhere to explain the significance of a balance between order and freedom, but I shall summarise it again briefly here; true freedom leaves us at risk from ourselves. ‘Order’ is a house within which we can ‘freely’ be ourselves; by setting limits to behaviour, we do so not to control one another, but to protect, and by recognising the importance of such protection, we gain freedom.
Therefore, “peaceful social being” is the result of an ordered and well-protected society, no longer at-risk from the selfish desires of individual impulse. The idea that individual impulse is a possible contributor to “isolation and war”, Peterson has clearly borrowed from Thomas Hobbes, who argued that individuals put aside their boundless capacity to satisfy their desires by recognising that when other individuals pursue those desires too, it might reasonably lead to conflict due to scarcity of resources.
- Hierarchies of competence are desirable and should be promoted.
What is referred to more commonly as ‘meritocracy’ is the 21st century version of hierarchy, the antidote to the egalitarian levelling out of society. But in the same way that “individual impulse”, as above, can lead to conflict, we must recognise in society that some people know better than others how to undertake certain tasks, either through natural talent or education. Either way, it is the competence of these people that must be stressed; gone are the days of the old aristocracy, whose names were their talents, here are the days of skill, of proven ability, of the meritocrats.
But conservatives are now the defenders of this, against the positive discrimination of the liberal-left who argue that the essential identity of someone qualifies them to legislate, judicate or execute on behalf of a whole group of people that person supposedly “represents”. It is a lazy method of promotion, yet many people seem to defend it; try telling a boss he should hire you because of your family name, you will be laughed out of the building (mostly). Competency needs to replace both nepotism and identitarianism, or we will lapse into the tribalism we have only recently escaped.
- Borders are reasonable. Likewise, limits on immigration are reasonable. Furthermore, it should not be assumed that citizens of societies that have not evolved functional individual-rights predicated polities will hold values in keeping with such polities.
Thank god someone said it. Borders are typically the ‘hard’ (political) representation of the ‘soft’ (social) dividing lines between groups usually defined by a combination of language, culture, and historically religion, or tribe. Whilst belief and blood have faded as unifying identities (only now re-emerging, as I note above), it is the more open and porous unifiers of “language” and “culture” that remains to justify the existence of borders.
But “borders” hold a deeper significance; they provide the method through which we can invite in our friends and hold back our enemies. They are not turnstiles through which people ceaselessly pass, but are drawbridges over moats that ring-fence a territory filled with people who share a history. We have a unique advantage in Britain, that our border is (mostly) visible; as Robert Winder observed in The Last Wolf in England, our physical border has provided a distinct ‘edge’ over which we can push those unwanted things. Other nations have less of this privilege, but it is a privilege, and one that has been forgotten in recent years in pursuit, on the one hand, of a worldwide unstoppable flow of labour, and on the other of baseless and “cosmopolitan” capital, neither of which is amenable to national identity.
- People should be paid so that they are able and willing to perform socially useful and desirable duties.
I feel as though this is too obscure to properly nail down, especially as I am not an economist. All I can say, is that it goes someway towards the old stress of Toryism on responsible capitalism, of employees giving their workers a ‘fair wage’, one that does not keep them in poverty to reduce them to serfdom, whilst retaining the necessary funds to maintain the business those peoples’ livelihood depend on.
- Citizens have the inalienable right to benefit from the result of their own honest labour.
Similar to the point above, this is almost squarely aimed at the Marxist assumptions surrounding the value, and exploitation, of labour; in essence, the Marxist argument goes that, if a worker produces a product that sells for £100, his labour is ‘valued’ at £100, no questions asked. It ignores the market logic that denies any objectivity in that value (the price might change the next day), or the chain of distribution, or the investment provided in that production, and so on. Marx’s argument continues that if that worker is paid only £50, then he is denied half of the value of his labour, and therefore is ‘alienated’ from half of his labour, i.e. from himself. (Alienation was the great philosophical issue of Marx’s time, and was wrapped in the thesis of singularity which I won’t go into here). Again, this ignores the fact that this worker’s value is not determined objectively, and is also contingent on the very job he is doing existing in the first place. Ergo, his labour is not a given fact, but rather a contingent possibility.
But it also addresses the issue of high taxation. People in Britain are taxed extremely highly already, and this principle recognises that tax deprives people of the fruit of their labour by assuming it belongs to the State first and foremost. The only person to whom wealth can belong is the person who generated it; and, as I point out above, there are a multitude of people involved in the creation of wealth, not merely the labourer.
- It is more noble to teach young people about responsibilities than about rights.
Peterson says in his lecture young people want something with “a little bit more depth than the constant emphasis on doing whatever you want whenever you want… ‘rights’ tell you what you can do but they don’t really tell you what you should do.” I’m not convinced this is true; it is true what he says about rights, but it is a trapping of being young that you insist no-one should be able to tell you what to do, and this is a false belief propped up by the current discourse on rights which deifies the “freedom” of the individual. But, as noted above, this attitude is corrosive, and instead a shift towards the fulfilling nature of responsibility is indeed the more noble pursuit, as it encourages the stability so central to society in the 21st century by facilitating a positive, contributary role for young people in their community.
- It is better to do what everyone has always done, unless you have some extraordinarily valid reason to do otherwise.
Ah, tradition. The cornerstone of conservatism. Like a beaten path through a dark forest, more often than not the safer thing to do is to stick to the old ways. Of course, as Peterson has pointed out, experimentation is good, and as Burke would have argued, it is necessary for the constant revival of the organism of society to stop from decaying too the point of collapse; but when the vast majority of us do not know the consequences of straying from the beaten path, it is generally best to do as those who came before us have done.
- Radical change should be viewed with suspicion, particularly in a time of radical change.
I believe, before addressing this, it worth qualifying what is meant by ‘radical’; conservatives do not reject ‘radicalism’ when it is a return to a previous form of doing things. Indeed, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was a radical rejection of the previous fifty years of instability, republicanism, and religious intolerance, but was a return to the British ethos of deference, Parliamentary government, tolerant Protestantism, and so on. In the same way, ‘Brexit’ is not a radical change; rather, it is a conservative rebellion that rejected the imposition of alien laws, propped up by unaccountable bureaucrats, with the hope of returning to the old.
This being said, what ‘radical’ here means is the unknown, and the pursuit of goals derived from abstract principles, or alien customs, and so on. When globalisation is pursued ceaselessly, when riotous upheaval is a fact of life in the Middle East, when the currents of change move unbound in the direction of the unknown – and unknowable – what matters is that we stand by the known, and the tried and tested. Most importantly, Peterson’s wording is important – radical change ought to be viewed with suspicion, but not necessarily hostility. Change is neither inherently good or bad, but change that cannot be reversed is not likely to be greeted warmly.
- The government, local and distal, should leave people to their own devices as much as possible.
Perhaps the more liberal impulse behind Peterson’s thinking, this speaks to a libertarian strand in conservatism that has been undeniable, yet oddly contended (indeed, Ewan Green’s book Ideologies of Conservatism dedicated a whole chapter to the question). Balanced by paternalism, I think it is important here to note that Peterson has specified limits to the government. The curious reader might wonder how this is reconcilable with the previous comments regarding tradition, responsibility and hierarchy, but as I’ve stated elsewhere that government is the hard power of politics, and has the power capable of forcing people to do, or not do, certain things. Why then, would conservatives – who have such faith in their own traditions, convictions and histories – be wary of imposing them on others?
The answer can be found in a conservative reading of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Toleration, in which Locke argued that the government of the day should refrain from imposing its own religious convictions on minorities, as empathy would ask the government to remember that, were it in such a minority position, it would expect such freedom extended to it. Similarly, conservatives fear the extension of state power in such a direction because, in the democratic age, such a powerful state could be used to deny them their own freedoms. Instead, the conservative must look to the soft power of politics, civil society, as method by which customs can be espoused, but not imposed.
- Intact heterosexual two-parent families constitute the necessary bedrock for a stable polity.
Given that the current leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Ruth Davidson, is pregnant via IVF with her and her female partner’s first child, it might gall some liberal conservatives to believe in such a principle. No doubt Peterson’s drawn such a conclusion from a myriad of empirical data and a lifetime as a clinical psychologist; I, however, take issue with this statement.
One, ‘intact’ does not mean the same as married; I, and most conservatives, believe marriage is essential in creating the loving and unified environment in which children are raised, as unmarried couples are too prone to easy separation. The current divorce rates should not be used to reject such a thesis; truly understood, marriage is a lifelong bond, not easily sundered by such action.
Two, the ‘heterosexual’ component is one with which I agree personally, but disagree with in general. Family is, without doubt, essential, and the traditional, nuclear family image is sadly not the reality for many. Furthermore, I am not convinced homosexual couples love an adopted child any less due to an absence of biological link; otherwise, we would ban adoption in general, not specifically homosexual adoption. Ergo, in keeping with the tenth principle outlined above, the government cannot make the judgement of preventing couples from adopting due to their sexuality; it can only prevent adoption based on the ineligibility of the potential parents.
- We should judge our political system in comparison to other actual political systems and not to hypothetical utopias.
Finally, perhaps the most significant principle of conservatism; the rejection of utopia. Utopia is a dream, and a crystal castle in the clouds; it can never come down to earth, for if it did it would shatter into a million pieces. This is because utopia demands uniformity, and human beings are not uniform, and cannot be made uniform.
Consequently, let us not judge our political systems by what could be, but by what is. And, coming full circle, looking out across the world, I cannot see a single political system outside of the West that I would happily live in.
Clearly, Peterson has a lot to offer conservatism. Surprisingly, given his emphasis on freedom of speech, that remained somewhat absent here, which perhaps is testament to his ability to theorise outside of his own biases. Regardless, these twelve principles outlined by Professor Peterson offer a robust and honest conservatism that can meet the challenges of the twenty-first century, and continue to provide the stability it has inherited.