The decline of marriage in the United States has become a cause for hand wringing, especially among our ruling class of centrist pundits who man the battlestations of our nation’s indispensable middle-brow newspapers. The emerging conventional wisdom? The current, well documented and precipitous decline in marriage has been caused by a confluence of social and economic forces: the mainstreaming of the ‘60– well, really ‘70’s– free love ethos, currently manifesting itself in the form of “hookup culture,” declining male wages (thus making said males less marriageable in the so-called “sexual marketplace”), as well as the phenomenon of “extended adolescence.”
The popular conservative response to this, aside from the predictable moans of general moralistic disapproval, has consisted mostly of admonitions to young men to “Man up,” or a more general appeal to both sexes about the utilitarian benefits of marriage and family.
Though such talking points have been staples of center-right sociological analysis for decades, few have expressed the true essence of this line of thought in as succinent and popular a form as the (now) world-famous Canadian professor of psychology and YouTube self-help guru Jordan B. Peterson.
Peterson, though he also frequently hits many of the same talking points as, say, Ross Douthat and Charles Murray, goes a step further and takes a firm stand, not just against the decline of marriage, but against the very idea of romance itself:
Romance is a young person’s game, and the reason for that is, obviously, the precursor to having children…The purpose of romance isn’t lifetime happiness. First of all that’s insane, because you’re just not going to find a person that’s going to make you happy…The purpose of romance is to set up the preconditions for having children and doing it properly.
To many conservative sensibilities Peterson’s advice may seem like common sense, even an appropriate response to what has been perceived as a drift away from the “traditional values” of the stoic mid-century suburban lifestyle practiced by the Greatest Generation and toward the self-absorbed narcissism of the Baby Boomers during the latters’ half-century quest for self-actualization.
The problem with this analysis is that, for all their many flaws, the Boomers were generally quite fond of marriage (to the point that they frequently did it multiple times throughout their lives). The Boomers, whatever else they were, were romantics; they frequently did not let being married to others get in the way of their romances.
Millennials, on the other hand, increasingly don’t marry at all. Ever. But not, contra Peterson, because they are wild eyed dreamers looking for their soul mates. Rather, because many of them have already internalized the very therapeutic, utilitarian, and neoliberal values that Peterson himself preaches.
The term “neoliberalism” is often derided by those on the center right and left as a meaningless pejorative hurled against “serious” people by various political radicals and ne’er-do-wells. We should therefore explain exactly what we mean by the term and, in particular, examine how it relates to Peterson’s thought.
A useful elucidation of the term, for our purposes, can be found in an interview that Wendy Brown, the author of Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, gave to Dissent Magazine. Under neoliberalism, she said,
…human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market, and every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, or state) is governed as a firm.
Importantly, this is not simply a matter of extending commodification and monetization everywhere—that’s the old Marxist depiction of capital’s transformation of everyday life. Neoliberalism construes even non-wealth generating spheres—such as learning, dating, or exercising—in market terms, submits them to market metrics, and governs them with market techniques and practices. Above all, it casts people as human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future value.”
This definition syncs up, almost exactly, with Peterson’s own method of analysis, which he has expressed in his hundreds of popular video lectures, in particular his meditations on the superiority and desirability of the vicious social hierarchies of lobsters. Hierarchies which, perhaps not coincidentally, in addition to being practiced by primitive, soulless arthropods that evolved millions of years before human beings, also perfectly reflect the ethos of modern neoliberal economists.
An ethos which Peterson eagerly applies to the romantic interactions of humans who operate in what he has called, fittingly, the “sexual marketplace.” As Peterson states, “women date across and up hierarchies, while men date across and down them.” Peterson argues that sexual hierarchies not only do exist, but should exist.
Reductionist and morally grotesque as Peterson’s “lobstertarian” vision of human interpersonal relationships is, it is not, contra the bloviations of his fans, in any way “counter-cultural.” Rather, in the context of our contemporary social hellscape of Tinder, meticulously manicured LinkedIn profiles, and personal brands which have been carefully designed to maximize the “human capital” (and thus, the “exchange value”) of their users, nothing could be more socially and economically orthodox.
In the traditional formulation, the classic barrier two young lovers faced to consummating their longing was usually the gaze of disapproving parents. But the lovers in question could always simply run away and elope to Las Vegas or Paris. A far easier task, in retrospect, than trying to escape the assessing gaze of thousands of Linkedin contacts and Instagram followers who surely notice that the object of your affection just doesn’t match very well with the personal brand you’ve worked so hard to cultivate– a brand upon which your livelihood and perceived social status depend. In this brave new world, a couple cannot afford romance, if it would lead them to a match that could compromise their market value. It is a reality to which the now largely empty wedding chapels of Vegas bear quiet witness.
Peterson’s goal was never to challenge the economic and social orthodoxy of the post-’68 world. Rather, it was always merely a project to attempt to reconcile alienated and disaffected young men, many of whom have now largely dropped out of modern society, to the neoliberal order itself. And the best way to do that, as Peterson has shown, is to construct an easily digestible mythological narrative structure that can adapt, plastically, to an individual’s role within the neoliberal order, without questioning it.
It is not, perhaps, a story designed to produce heroes: those who will lose their lives for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, those who will challenge the order itself as unjust and inhumane. But it will produce good managers.
Peterson has become a kind of anti-Tolstoy who has rewritten “The Death Of Ivan Ilych” but changed the ending. Instead of Ivan’s life of self-absorbed bourgeois tedium being revealed for the wasteful banality, the house built of straw which it was, it instead morphs into the glorious crescendo of a particular hero’s journey. Such is the alchemical wonderworking afforded to the practitioners of Jungian mysticism: the ability to transmute shit into gold.
It is appropriate that Peterson should be an acolyte of Carl Jung. He, like his teacher before him, has abandoned the transcendent truth claims which so long structured Christian civilization and has exchanged them for a strictly personal, psychological religion designed to reconcile modern man to a fate of meaninglessness by mining the corpses of ancient symbolic universes. As Philip Rieff once remarked, concerning Jung’s schema (and thus Peterson’s as well): “This is a religion of sorts— for spiritual dilettantes, who collect symbols and meanings as others collect paintings.”
Peterson’s brand is that of a warrior against the contemporary fantasy of sexual nominalism carried to its end in the demand that people be addressed by the pronoun of their choice, his refusal of which launched his meteoric rise. And his hard headed gender-dimorphic advice, which would as its logical conclusion posit that the optimized relationship for a man must be the fourth marriage of a plutocrat to a woman thirty years his junior, might seem far from the banal, neutered alliances of self-interested, egalitarian individuals who are the face of much of modern mating.
But look a little deeper, and his view suffers from the same parched, bland commitment to self-protection as those couplings. His language too can be justly subject to the criticism of Leon and Amy Kass, in a now-classic essay on sexual utilitarianism: “The prominent descriptions of pairing-off are neutered and unerotic: people have a relationship, not a romance, with a partner or a significant other, not a lover or a beloved.”
His “sexual marketplace” analysis may seem appealing, at first. But as you consider them, Peterson’s lobsters start to seem more and more like cold fish.
At the end of the day, as the formidable Eastern Orthodox Theologian David Bentley Hart recently observed, Peterson’s ideas are little more than “a pastiche of risiblely bad scholarship by a second rate mind.” Still they are ideas which have now become influential in the lives of millions of young men and women struggling to make sense of life and love under the neoliberal order.
Yet if these men and women truly desire to make sense of it all, to “straighten themselves out,” they would do best to disregard Peterson’s advice. They should instead embrace romance and throw themselves into love, of the truth and others, not out of some utility-maximizing scheme to climb the crustacean dominance hierarchy of neoliberalism, but for its own sake. Even if it costs them everything.
They should take their cues from Christ and Socrates, not Freud and Jung. Or, if they are less metaphysically inclined, they could simply take the advice of the Talking Heads: “Never for money, Always for Love. Cover up and say goodnight.”