Jordan Peterson, Carl Jung, and the Challenge for Social Ecology (Harbinger)

Harbinger, the journal of the Institute for Social Ecology, has re-launched, and I aimed to be in the inaugural edition, which was recently published. The founder of social ecology was Murray Bookchin, and the Institute for Social Ecology carries on his legacy. While I do not fully agree with the ideas of either Social Ecology or Canadian psychologist and public intellectual Jordan Peterson, I resonate with some of the concerns of both positions. I thought it would be interesting to think about what would happen if the ideas of these two very different thinkers were put into dialogue with each other. Here is the result

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While videos of Dr. Jordan Peterson had been on the Internet for years, he came into the consciousness of millions only two years ago when the Canadian psychology professor was reprimanded by the University of Toronto for his refusal to use gender neutral pronouns like “they,” “ze” and “zir,” as guided by Canadian human rights legislation. Peterson objected to the law and university policy mandating the use of certain words. It sparked the Cold Warrior in him, the part that despised totalitarian attempts to propagandize and regulate speech. His protests naturally made him popular with conservatives in the United States who had long railed against “cultural Marxists” in universities who discriminated against conservative and religious students and instituted campus speech codes. As he made his case for free speech, and largely under his radar, a movement was forming. This movement was built to a certain extent on the foundations of the U.S. “Tea Party” and Reaganite/Thatcherite neoliberals around the world, but with affinities with authoritarian nationalism, even ethnonationalism and white supremacy. In the United States, this amorphous group was dubbed the “Alt-Right.” While Peterson took pains to distinguish his classical liberalism from this new and extreme right-wing movement, it still formed a part of his fan-base due to his attempts to strike a blow against political correctness, Peterson was eventually dubbed a member of the “intellectual dark web.” 

Peterson has spent much of his career as a professor explaining the significance and function of mythology and the ways in which (as per Carl Jung’s theory) too much secularity can make for “secular religion” or “ideological possession.” Peterson’s Biblical Series on YouTube explains the Judeo-Christian heritage in a new language for a younger generation. His analysis highlights the importance and singularity of that tradition and its alleged individualist and masculine implications.  But Peterson’s scholarship on mythology and religion often gets lost in the popular consciousness when compared to his combative stance against the left. As a result, he is interviewed more for his views on free speech and cultural Marxism than for his analysis of mythology. 

As his debate with Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek demonstrates, Peterson is not an expert on the tradition he wants to defend (liberal democracy, capitalism), let alone the tradition he wants to oppose (socialism, communism). He also does not acknowledge the current world-wide explosion of right-wing populism and nationalism, preferring to focus instead on the milieu of elite universities whose politics he personally lives. Because of his own ideological blinders, Peterson has not been able to consider the extent to which the liberal/neoliberal capitalist system he defends contradicts his stated values of being an individual, developing meaningful relationships and lasting commitments, living a stable family life and engaging in human community in a way in which commitments can be made and kept.

Peterson’s Ideological Blindspots

Peterson strongly advocates for individualism against what he perceives to be totalitarian efforts to control speech, but there are other ways beyond speech codes that severely interfere with individual freedom and expression. It is difficult to be an individual when so much of our lives are influenced and supplied by the pitches and products of global mega-corporations. Their influence threatens not only cultural uniqueness and cohesion with homogenous mass-market Western culture, but the ability of people to feed and care for themselves with their own resources on their own terms. The economic and cultural destruction of the globalized economy is arguably the efficient cause of right-wing movements like Islamic fundamentalism, right-wing populism, Identitarianism and ethno-nationalism, eco-fascism, Brexit-type withdrawals from international trade agreements, and the more benign phenomenon of localism (where we find certain conservatives and left-leaning views beginning to converge). 

Peterson is a strong advocate of the value of religion, but spiritual life is also not well supported by neoliberal politics and economics. Taking his cue from Jung, Peterson argues that Islamic and other fundamentalisms surge from a deeper cause, the threat of secularism, but for some reason he does not make the connection between the secularism which exploded in the European Enlightenment and the ongoing secularizing power of liberalism and capitalism. He expresses a hope that returning to a purer liberalism might somehow allow us to rediscover religion without acknowledging that liberalism was born as an aggressively secular ideology. 

Peterson like many conservatives supports the value of a strong and stable family and community life. In support of this value, he tells young men to get out there and establish meaningful human relationships and commitments. But the neoliberal economy provides them plenty to do in the privacy of their apartments and feeds on their isolation. It encourages men and women who have managed to “launch” to think in terms of career and income first in choosing mates, and to move throughout their lives for jobs or promotions. It sells the idea that unpaid domestic labor is less prestigious than salaried work. It promotes emotional fulfillment through consuming products and thus discourages the savings necessary to establish family security across generations through the accumulation of property in land and investments. Young people are taught that staying in place and prioritizing family and friendships are signs of failure. Old people use all their savings on “independent living” communities rather than relying on their family, friends, and neighbors. 

Like most conservatives, Peterson believes in the personal over the anonymous, and independence over dependency. But with increasingly fewer lasting marriages and stable families, it should not be surprising that the neighborhood has become for many little more than a rest stop on their way back to work–garages out front, empty patios in the rear and neighbors whose names they do not remember and whose faces they seldom see. It should also not be surprising, then, that most people don’t have any meaningful attachment to their local community. The more people attach themselves to the larger economy and are not able to avail themselves of each other’s help, the more money they spend and the more dependent they are on the vagaries of the global market. 

While conservatives, including Peterson, are used to warning others of a too-powerful government, they are not as used to worrying about a too-powerful consumerism, or dependency on an unpredictable global supply for something as fundamental to life as food. Our vulnerability to food disruption is masked by large-scale government intervention in the food supply chain, making sure that mass-production farmers receive enough subsidies to continue to uphold their end of the agri-business global exchange. 

There is a pervasive tendency, especially now, to identify with “team red” or “team blue” and to filter information accordingly. Peterson is famous for pointing this out about the left, calling it “ideological possession.” But he and others who complain about left-wing fanaticism cannot detect their own ideological blind spots, the ways in which their own stated values are undermined by the system they uncritically support. Ideological blind spots happen, according to Jung’s (and Peterson’s) reasoning, when people begin to treat their ideology like a religious faith, defending it like crusaders against infidels. Peterson is caught in this trap himself. 

Peterson and Social Ecology

Underlying Peterson’s analysis of religion and his disagreement with feminists and multiculturalists are positions that make his views directly opposed to the values of social ecology. While Social Ecologists would not have a problem with encouraging responsibility and fostering meaningful human relationships, Peterson’s views on hierarchy, the masculine principle, and the usefulness of religion are all problem areas for social ecology. For the sake of clarity, I will rely on Murray Bookchin’s writings for my definition of social ecology, comparing Bookchin’s thought with Peterson’s and then with the ideas of Peterson’s intellectual wellspring, Carl Jung. The reason for turning to Jung is that social ecology might have something to gain from Jung’s thought, insofar as Peterson does not represent Jung’s political, social and economic views with the nuance they deserve. 

Hierarchy and Masculinity

Peterson is famous for his views on hierarchy and male dominance behavior, both of which he explains by alluding to the behavior of lobsters. These views are not dependent upon the theories of Carl Jung. Instead they are based in Peterson’s understanding of evolution and neurochemistry. He reasons that since lobsters get a serotonin rush after winning a flight, flex their bodies to express their triumph, and want to fight again to establish dominance within the group, that this provides proof that human dominance behavior is deeply rooted in our evolutionary, pre-human past. Darwinian evolutionary theory shows, according to Peterson, that hierarchy in general and generally male dominance behavior in particular is primordial and the optimal time-tested strategy for success.

Bookchin’s views on early humans and the causes and value of human hierarchy and male dominance could not be more opposite. Bookchin was a student of anthropology and had concluded that ancient human beings, while organizing along different roles for males, females, young and old, and even having a concept of authority, did not at first establish hierarchy, understood as “institutionalized systems of command and obedience” enforced by coercion (EoF p. 4). The first steps toward hierarchy were the emergence of gerontocracy and gendered fraternal and sororal groups with differing customs, values and beliefs. 

Bookchin’s highly elaborated theory of the gradual emergence of hierarchy and its culmination in male dominated leadership and the coercive state is beyond the scope of the present text. But here I would note that Bookchin used his theory of early complimentary, non-hierarchical human relations as normative, much as Rousseau used his view of humans in the “state of nature” as normative. Because humans had once been capable of living without hierarchy, Bookchin argues that human hierarchy is not inevitable, and how we organize ourselves can be changed using reason. Thus, early human societies function for Bookchin’s much the same way in his theory as Peterson’s lobsters function for his. Just as Peterson points to lobsters, Social Ecologists can point to early anthropological evidence and tribal peoples who still live with authority, perhaps, but without dominance-based hierarchy. 

What Bookchin derives from the anthropological evidence is a human nature which is not fixed but changeable over time. For much of human history, human “second nature” — that is, our ability to change the way we interact with each other and our world– has been developed largely from people reacting to necessity. For instance, as clans got bigger, conflict over territory or scarce resources became inevitable, which meant that more wars occurred. The value of men’s physical strength went up relative to women’s farming and child-rearing skills because men protected people from immediate existential threats. However, Bookchin reasoned, as humans eventually had less need for brute strength and had developed their ability to reason to such an extent that they should be able to form their “second nature” on rational grounds to overcome the problems created by hierarchy. 

This is perhaps the part of Bookchin’s theory that is “utopian,” as it expects something that has never happened – namely the use of human reason to establish a truly just and equitable society. Peterson points to endless real-world cases of hierarchy and dominance. He takes the typical realist stance that the behavior that characterizes much of human history is natural and therefore normative. Not only do we adapt to this behavior or cease to be competitive, but striving and competing for dominance in whatever field is what is best for all because it yields stronger economic and political order. Peterson’s psychological theory coincides with his preference for classical liberal political and economic theory. Liberal theory rests on the idea of self-interested competition as natural and good because it leads to order and economic growth. Bookchin’s theory coincides with his preference for anarchism and a decentralized libertarian socialism, theories that assume people can live cooperatively without hierarchy and do not need the intervention of a coercive state and economy.

Religion

Peterson’s views on religion are complicated. He has said that he acts as though God exists and he’s terrified that he might, but it’s unclear whether he is a actually a theist, let alone a Christian. What we do know is that Peterson finds religion to be psychologically and socially useful. He loosely follows Jung’s reasoning here, but also is highly influenced by his reading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the cause of nihilism and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s exposé of totalitarian oppression in The Gulag Archipelago. He argues that “ideological possession “ (totalitarian communism and Fascism) flows from the modern predicament of secularity, the loss of religion. Peterson describes ideological possession this way:

We think things we don’t act out and we act things we don’t dream and that produces a kind of sickness of the Spirit and that sickness of the Spirit…its cure is something like an integrated system of belief and representation, and then people turn to things like ideologies which I regard as parasites on an underlying religious substructure to try to organize their thinking and then that’s a catastrophe…

To summarize Peterson’s view, we’re better off with religion because the alternative is ideological extremism. Bookchin’s views on religion, while not the exact opposite of Peterson’s, are much less favorable. Bookchin’s ecological writings in the 1980s inadvertently contributed to a growing interest in neo-paganism and the idealization of aboriginal peoples, prompting significant revision and clarification in the 1991 edition of The Ecology of Freedom, where he states: 

I believed that the Enlightenment’s battle against superstition had been long since won in American and European culture, and that no one would mistake me for advocating a revival of animism or Goddess worship. I never believed that we could or should introduce their naive religious, mythic, or magical beliefs or their cosmologies into the present-day ecological movement. 

It’s quite possible to see an idealization of indigenous people in some of Bookchin’s earlier writings, but less possible to see advocacy for a re-enchantment of the Western mind in the interest of ecology. Whereas Peterson blames Marxism, albeit disguised as identity politics, as the reason for the inward turn toward cultural expression, Bookchin sees in neo-paganism and other subjective turns a desperate grasping for coping mechanisms in an increasingly oppressive world: 

The massive shift by many people away from the serious concerns with the objective conditions of life–such as institutional forms of domination, the use of technology for exploitative purposes, and the everyday realities of human suffering–toward an introverted subjectivism, with its overwhelming focus on psychology and ‘hidden’ motivations, the rise of the culture industry, and the intellectual anxieties over collegiate issues like academic careers and pedagogical eminence–all testify to a sense of disempowerment in both social and personal life.

In other words, the political correctness and obsession with personal identity that Peterson sees as a threatening return of Marxism veiled in ethical rhetoric, Bookchin saw as the ineffectual expressions of people who could not affect real change on external and objective factors of social life. We forget Wiccans and Goddess-worshipping feminists came before the more standard multiculturalism and “social justice warriorism” that unfolded in the mid to late 1990’s and beyond, and that this prompted critique from within the very left Peterson criticizes. It’s likely that Bookchin would agree with Peterson’s recent debate partner Žižek that these personalistic ideologies create convenient pressure release valves for an over-stressed society but do not actually lead to any meaningful change. Bookchin wrote, “The bourgeoisie easily guffaws at these absurdities and is only too eager to commodify them into new sources of profit,” a point Žižek makes ceaselessly. 

Bookchin tends to read religion of any kind, including Christianity, as the outgrowth of people suffering from “mystical regressions.” But he identifies a more helpful spirituality with the “ability of an emancipated humanity to function as ethical agents for diminishing needless suffering…” Bookchin’s spirituality is human, not divine. It rejects the supernatural in favor of a thoroughly natural regard for the world and humanity’s place in it. While he was aware that one strain of Enlightenment thought led to extremism, he made a distinction between rationalism and reason. While rationalism subjects everything to the withering and domineering will of someone’s or some group’s idea of perfection, leading to abuse, reason is the thoughtful and measured application of human intellect which can be developed within our second or “social nature” to avoid harm and solve problems. 

As with the issues of hierarchy and male dominance, we find Bookchin on the side of hope and optimism when it comes to human beings’ ability to handle problems without resorting to religion for guidance and social control, whereas Peterson stands on the side of pessimism. Peterson is fond of reminding his viewers of how difficult and tragic life is, both at the individual and societal level. If life consists of much suffering, and that suffering is an inescapable part of the human condition both because life is inherently unpredictable and because we will die, then relying on religion for psychological support makes more sense. This is especially so if, as Peterson argues, the human psyche is irretrievably religious and trying to fight that instinct leads to ideological extremism. 

The contrasts between Bookchin and Peterson is revealing. The social optimism of social ecology, based on its view of humankind as potentially reasonable and changeable, allows people to think about different possible futures. The pessimism of Peterson would suggest that we cannot fundamentally change the human condition and that our position in the world is tragic. This makes it possible not just to accept a political and economic system that admittedly has many flaws, such as vastly unequal wealth distribution and labor contributions, but advocate for it as the least harmful system. However, Peterson deals little with the environmental impact of the global capitalist system. When he does, he acknowledges we are paying a price for excessive production and consumption, but he does not see it as an existential crisis. If our environmental impact is leading to an existential crisis caused by man-made climate change, genetic modification gone wrong, etc.,  then Bookchin’s views will seem less idealistic and more practical. 

Carl Jung and Social Ecology

Bookchin does not mention Carl Jung very much, especially in comparison with his use of Freud. In “Anarchism” (check), Bookchin mentions Jung only once, and when he does, he associates him with the “lifestyle anarchists” or New Agers mentioned above as the precursors of an inward-turning identity politics. These people turn to a “dreamlike absorption with spirits, ghosts, and Jungian archetypes rather than a rational and dialectical awareness of the world (Bookchin 1995 p. 55).” Bookchin was much more informed by Freud, even though he often differed from Freud’s conclusions, particularly Freud’s idea that psychic repression and “rule” were necessary to build civilization and his dim view of a static human nature. For Bookchin human nature was not fixed but was shaped by events, institutions, and decisions over time, and hence could be reshaped. Early human beings were not, in his view, driven by instincts of such power that they needed to be repressed to build any order. 

No doubt the main reason Bookchin showed little interest in Jung was Jung’s preference for psychological explanations based in myth and religion. This is, not coincidentally, the aspect of Jung’s theory that led to his break with Freud in 1913. The association of Jung with New Age spiritualism, discussed above, is unfortunate and does not do Jung’s theory of archetypes justice any more than does Jordan Peterson’s Cold War reading of Jung’s political ideas. To understand Jung’s theory well and see how it is truncated in Peterson’s work, I will briefly explain Jung’s core concepts of the collective unconscious, archetypes, and their significance in a secular age.

Jung’s Political Thought

Jung claims that the collective unconscious is a stratum of the unconscious shared by everyone, regardless of cultural difference. Its origins are ancient, primitive, and prior to the appearance of genuine individuality. It is therefore impossible to answer the question of how or exactly when the collective unconscious was first expressed. What we have in the archeological and historical record are pictorial symbolic expressions and early writings that came, no doubt, long after the archetypes had already bubbled up in action and non-written communication. The visible symbols by which the collective unconscious expresses itself will differ according to civilization, culture and time, even though the archaic ground from which these symbols arise is the same because they have to do with universal and fundamental human experiences such as birth, danger and death. Jung imagines something like a layered memory bank in the human psyche. Most of the time, only the most recent layers are accessible to our consciousness. But the symbols used in the past, even the very distant past, to express the archetypes in that age and place, are still stored in the lower levels of our unconscious along with the archetypes themselves. 

Philosopher Charles Taylor’s argument in A Secular Age (2007) resonates with Jung’s analysis of the collective unconscious. Taylor’s book is perhaps the best explanation to date of how not only the modern scientific mentality, but certain developments within Christianity, produced a disproportionate rationalism. This rationalism and the subsequent diminishment of spiritual openness in early humans in turn destroyed the “porous self” which could have direct spiritual experience. It created growing “disenchantment” or disbelief in the possibility of the supernatural or numinous experience, producing the “buffered self.” Along with disenchantment and the buffered self, Taylor writes, came a great “dis-embedding,” in which human beings lost their sense of oneness with their society and became autonomous, isolated and atomistic. According to both Jung and Taylor, doubt then crept in as to the validity and meaning of society’s religious rituals and symbols. They began to lose their life and force as organizing principles for society. Post-Enlightenment, individuals were cut loose into a sort of painful isolation in search of new meaning and new symbols which could recapture the power of the old.

Reading Jung through a philosopher like Charles Taylor is useful for many reasons, but one of them is that it demonstrates that Jung’s insights are not entirely unique. The same kind of observation about the loss of enchantment due to the rise of Enlightenment rationalism is made by thinkers as varied as Friedrich Nietzsche, Isaiah Berlin, Leo Strauss, Jacques Ellul, Eric Voeglin, and Hans Morgenthau, and none of these figures are considered leading contributors to New Age superstition. Rather, they deal with a very important shift in the consciousness of human beings in modernity, a shift with important implications for how we organize ourselves and how we interact with our environment. Jung’s speculation that the archetypes are somehow biologically embedded is what makes his particular rendition of this general theory unique, but the field of comparative mythology certainly backs up Jung’s core observation that there are ideas such as creation, flood/destruction of the earthy, the birth and death of gods, etc., that are universal but get expressed differently in different cultures.

Reading Jung through Taylor also highlights the overlap of Jung’s concerns with those of Bookchin. Like Freud (who sought the origins of human neuroses in our primal experiences), Jung tried very hard to get into the minds of archaic human beings, just as Taylor does. None of these authors reduce “primitive” experience to what scientifically informed people think of it now. Instead, they attempt to enter the mental/emotional space in which archaic peoples lived. Bookchin makes a similarly concerted effort to get into the minds of those peoples and, like Freud, Jung and Taylor, uses the findings of philosophers, anthropologists and archeologists to do so.  

We might say that Bookchin saw as mankind’s biggest misfortune what Taylor would identify as “disembeddedness.” For Taylor, disembedding from a social oneness was intimately tied to slow disenchantment, starting with the Axial Age and reaching a crucial point during the Enlightenment and beyond. So unlike Bookchin, for Jung and Taylor the loss of direct spiritual experience is connected to the loss of social oneness. As this loss becomes increasingly severe, in Taylor’s language the “police state” begins to emerge. At first the stronger state works to make people better religionists, but eventually people figure out that their methods for creating social order work without religious goals as primary, and the race for social and environmental engineering is on. 

Jung theorized that the psychic energy that once was directed at non-human targets, namely gods or God, is at this point transferred to organizations created by human beings, and to particular leaders and ideologies. Because of modern empiricism and rationalism, the sort of seemingly unstoppable mechanization of life that Jacques Ellul referred to as “technique,” and the growing disbelief in anything superior to mundane human experience, people are alienated from nature and life. Their cultures are degraded and destroyed with the destruction of the symbolic, that is, the irrational side of life. They are in turn much more susceptible to psychic inflation: attributing to themselves godlike capabilities and importance. More frequently, they are susceptible to identification with ideologies, the state, or godlike leaders. This is what Jung thought accounted for the catastrophes of World War I and World War II. 

Jung argued that traditional religion was psychologically superior to secular ideological belief systems, and that ideologies were more dangerous to society, individual life, and freedom than religion. He diagnosed the crisis of our times by pointing out that totalitarian political structures of the twentieth century were born in a rebellious denial of the religious instinct in man, and that this is not mere coincidence. This connection between religion and ideology, and the implication that religion is superior to ideology, and with the further implication that we might be able to learn from religion, is jarring to some modern ears. But we need to remember that Jung was grappling with the immediate and unprecedented phenomenon of fascism, Nazism and then totalitarian communism. 

What was wrong with German life before and between the two world wars that stimulated the archetypes of rage and led to Nazism? What disturbed people so deeply that they instinctually found sociopathic figures who personified their rage? Jung emphasized two related causes in his essay “After the Catastrophe,” and while he discussed the humiliation of World War I for the Germans, neither of his chief points centered on it. The first point, on which Jordan Peterson does not dwell, was the urbanization and massification of people as a cause of ideological extremism. The second was the rise of the large, dominating modern state that followed urbanization and massification. The first issue he described in this way:

“As I have said, the uprush of mass instincts was symptomatic of a compensatory move of the unconscious. Such a move was possible because the conscious state of the people had become estranged from the natural laws of human existence. Thanks to industrialization, large portions of the population were up-rooted and were herded together in large centres. This new form of existence—with its mass psychology and social dependence on the fluctuations of markets and wages—produced an individual who was unstable, insecure, and suggestible. He was aware that his life depended on boards of directors and captains of industry, and he supposed, rightly or wrongly, that they were chiefly motivated by financial interests. He knew that, no matter how conscientiously he worked, he could still fall a victim at any moment to economic changes which were utterly beyond his control. And there was nothing else for him to rely on.”

Jung credits the uprooting of people by the industrial revolution, which had continued apace up to and through the First World War and interwar years, with creating a new kind of person—a “mass man.” There are two reasons why industrial urbanization had this effect. The sheer numbers of people working and living so closely together created a dehumanizing “herd” mentality, in which the individual felt lost in the crowd. Such a person could feel as though his insignificance and anonymity meant that he had little moral responsibility. What was lost during the process of urbanization is significant and remains largely uncompensated. Jung argued that people experienced more solitude in rural life, and were forced to remain aware of their individuality and moral agency. They experienced directly the fruits of their labor if they worked on farms or were craftsmen, work that also reminded them of their individuality and moral agency. They dealt with relatively few people, among which their families and relatives loomed large, so their community bonds were naturally stronger. They created real relationships with their neighbors as well, because they saw each other frequently and naturally cared for each other’s needs. In these small ways, they were known and could know others and themselves.  

Taylor explains that rural people could also more easily experience the fearsome and primal forces of nature, especially the mystery and danger of the wilderness, as spiritual forces. As human beings began to conquer nature, as they envisioned themselves controlling and manipulating what was once wild, they lost direct access to numinous experience. Out of this shift came a new understanding of God, what Taylor calls “Providential Deism,” and a new understanding of humanity in “exclusive humanism.” So, not only did “the masses” lose individuality and real social connectedness, but they lost a feeling of direct contact with the divine. For Jung, this sense of direct contact was a central element in retaining a sense of individual balance and responsibility.

Jung observed that the material rewards to be had in urban areas through working for wages were precarious in new ways. Whereas in a pre-industrial setting a peasant’s livelihood might have been affected by the “wilderness,” as in an act of God such as a drought or flood, in the post-industrial urban environment a worker’s livelihood was affected by the actions of other people whom she would never see. Worse yet, it was affected by a mechanism beyond her or seemingly anyone’s control–the market. In the liberal formulation, the market was not the product of planning or any ethical intention. Further, to the extent that governments intervened in the economy, and they most certainly did in all the economic systems Jung knew about at the time, they did so not in the interest of individuals, families or groups but rather abstract economic growth in mind. All of this added up to a great dehumanization, with severe social and political repercussions.

Jung’s observations on the major changes in lifestyle and mentality between agrarian and urban life are not addressed by Jordan Peterson, probably because they point uncomfortably to the development of capitalism as the underlying reason for 20th Century ideological extremism. In this regard, they are closer to the concerns of Bookchin, or Marx’s observation almost a century earlier that capitalism “has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.” Jung observed that, liberal rhetoric to the contrary, “free trade” in the 20th Century was not so free as Marx might have imagined. Of course, the Nazis and fascists practiced corporatism and the Russians communism, but the Americans and Western Europeans were also creating something other than a “free market.” Jung wrote:

“The steady growth of the Welfare State is no doubt a very fine thing from one point of view, but from another it is a doubtful blessing, as it robs people of their individual responsibility and turns them into infants and sheep.” 

In the 21st century we need not think of the welfare state as referring simply to social welfare programs, but the tendency of the state to interfere more and more in the economy generally and in regulating, planning and organizing many areas of life, such as banking and finance, economic development, farming and food, education and health care, all in the name of human welfare and a certain type of consumer “freedom.” As people in liberal countries became more dependent upon government for solutions of all kinds, they too participated in a kind of ideological possession. Jung wrote of:

“…the accumulation of urban, industrialized masses—of people torn from the soil, engaged in one-sided employment, and lacking every healthy instinct, even that of self-preservation. Loss of the instinct of self-preservation can be measured in terms of dependence on the State, which is a bad symptom. Dependence on the State means that everybody relies on everybody else (= State) instead of on himself.”

Taylor describes the deficit that produces ideological possession this way:

“[E]xclusive humanism” tended to “draw the compass of human life too narrowly.  Pursuing the goods of life and prosperity, while eschewing ‘enthusiasm,’ in a world designed especially to favour these ends, seemed to make life shallow, devoid of deep resonance and meaning; it seemed to exclude transports of devotion, of self-giving, to deny a heroic dimension to our existence; it reduces us by enclosing us in a too-rosy picture of the human condition, shorn of tragedy, irreparable loss, meaningless suffering, cruelty and horror.”

In other words, the price of industrialized, technological civilization was a deadening of the spiritual senses and a diminishment of the feeling of being alive. The social, cultural and economic forces that caused this dehumanization and that subsequently caused people to throw themselves into massive ideological upheavals as a means of compensation, are still with us today and have only become stronger and more pervasive. These forces include materialism, scientism, technical rationality and automation.  

Since 1946, the rural/urban dynamic Jung discussed has also gotten much worse. Especially in America, we have seen the virtual destruction of the independent family farm, and with it, small towns and small businesses, places of worship, cultural practices and traditions. We have witnessed the destruction of a relatively independent rural way of life. Existing small midwestern towns linger in a sort of half-dead state, having lost many families who had lived for generations on their land. Due partly, no doubt, to boredom and lack of a sense of clear purpose in rural populations, alcohol and drug addiction are rampant. Rural people often lack access to decent medical care, not to mention nutritious food. Ironically, rural and inner-city areas are plagued by similar problems. Both areas treated by the rest of society as the detritus left behind by economic progress, something to sweep under the rug. In the 1970’s Wendell Berry foresaw the consequences of this great upheaval, comparing what had happened to white rural communities to the fate of Native Americans—the “conquerors” bringing a seemingly ineluctable destructive commercial growth:

“Time after time, in place after place, these conquerors have fragmented and demolished traditional communities, the beginnings of domestic cultures. They have always said that what they destroyed was outdated, provincial, and contemptible. And with alarming frequency they have been believed and trusted by their victims, especially when their victims were other white people.”

Jung’s views resonate with Berry’s lament: as the Western world modernized, moving away from the agrarian life and toward urbanization and industrialization, the reality was the destruction of traditional means of independence and spiritual disintegration. This is a very different story than the one Jordan Peterson offers. Peterson narrows the Jungian perspective to a Cold War anti-communist lens long after the fall of the Berlin wall, but in Jung’s story, the problem is not limited to totalitarian communism. It does not lie in the political left but in modernity’s origins in the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and the urbanization and industrialization that undergird the capitalist system. From this vantage point, the corporate-government nexus of neoliberal capitalism would be for Jung just as problematic as communism.

The Challenge for Social Ecology

Taking another look at Jungian political theory reveals some interesting challenges for social ecology. Foremost among these challenges would be the idea raised by Jung and supported by Taylor that religion was long a crucial component in community, fostering a oneness or embeddedness that arguably allowed for more harmony and willingness to work toward the good of all (all being inseparable from the individual). There are many reasons why we might be skeptical of the benefits of religion, not the least being the unproductive narcissism of some New Age adherents and the Christian Church’s checkered history. But Jung has a point that as secularism increased, a certain ideological extremism also emerged, just in time to take advantage of the technology made possible by the worldly, materialistic turn of modernity. If social embeddedness is desirable at all, and if it has operated in the past through shared religious beliefs, then this is an area where social ecology might benefit from dialogue with various faiths today. Dismissing religion entirely as an obstacle to reason alienates many people and may even cause them to either politicize their faith or make ideology their real religion (both of which many conservative Christians have done). Once that happens, ecology becomes another word for communism, the ultimate evil, and no dialogue is possible. 

Social ecology could also profit from Jung’s insights into the effects of industrialization and urbanization on the way people think and behave. As we have seen, Jung thought that these trends disconnected people from their natural environment with results that were dehumanizing, alienating and conducive to radicalization. This is not an area of disagreement with social ecology. Instead, Jung is a relatively untapped source for understanding how these rapid changes in the way we live have resulted in political extremism and violence not just in the United States but around the world. Jung’s argument is a useful resource for a movement that wants to change peoples’ minds about how they organize themselves. It certainly supports a critique of the globalized neoliberal economy and it might prove fruitful for developing the idea of devolution in order to build strong communities, or what Bookchin called communalism. The fact that Jung took religion seriously should not get in the way of these useful arguments.

Perhaps most fundamentally, revisiting Jung shines a spotlight on the question of whether the exclusive reliance on human reason is warranted or desirable. Here is where we find Peterson at odds with himself. On the one hand, as a Jungian, he follows the argument that people were and are motivated by deep sub- and unconscious forces within their psyches, and that when these were suppressed, bad things started to happen. On the other hand, he is so focused on the threat of socialism and communism that he cannot see their roots in the same Enlightenment that gave birth to liberal democracy and capitalism. He cannot, therefore, imagine that his own preferred political ideology and economic system are fostering ideological extremism today. Strangely enough, Bookchin too engages in a contradiction in his thought. He can see the harm done by an economic and political system that is individualistic, hierarchical, competitive and all about growth, but he cannot see that his reliance on the correct application of human reason as the only solution is also a version of problematic Enlightenment thought, and one that has not yet been proven to yield good fruit.

The re-emergence of Jungianism through Jordan Peterson presents Social Ecologists with an opportunity to engage in dialogue with other perspectives in a way that might yield fresh positions that better deal with the massive political and ecological challenges facing the world. Peterson may not be open to the idea that he is wrong about some things (on the other hand, he might), but Social Ecologists should be open to learning new ways of thinking about what it takes to create a stronger community in harmony with the rest of nature. 


One thought on “Jordan Peterson, Carl Jung, and the Challenge for Social Ecology (Harbinger)

  1. A great read! I have not read anything by Jung but that was very interesting. My interests are in Marxist philosophy so it was great to see how Marx and Jung interacted in your post. Regarding harmony with the rest of nature, I find looking at pre-agricultural societies such as Australian Aboriginals and Native Americans. Being Australian I know a bit more about the former. In their culture the land was not something given to us to make use of (in the Lockean sense) but something one belonged to. This is why I think it is hard to separate a social ecology with a criticism of capitalism. Since that is the case, I would be very doubtful (as you were also concerned) that Peterson and his ilk would be open to.

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