In recent years, Jordan Peterson, the 56-year-old Canadian clinical psychologist, has become the new star of the political right. His books are bestsellers, and his YouTube videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people, sometimes even millions. Although he is an educated man with a lot of interesting things to say, some of his views are very disturbing, if not potentially dangerous. Perhaps the best illustration of this is his position on inequality and capitalism.
According to Peterson, inequality is both natural and inevitable. In his talks, he likes to invoke Price’s Law, which states that the square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work, while the rest, the majority, takes care of the other half. This inequality, Peterson continues, can be found everywhere. A tiny number of musicians, for instance, create 50% of the music that is played; a few of the best hockey players score most of the goals; a small number of stars contain most of the mass and so on. So the fact that a small number of people own most of the wealth is, according to his reasoning, an inevitable result caused by a natural law. Capitalism, therefore, cannot be held responsible for the inequality that we observe today.
This argument by Peterson has some serious problems. While he is probably right that it is impossible to create and maintain a perfectly equal world, it is without a doubt that capitalism nurtures inequality. After all, inequality is built into the very core of any capitalist system.
Perhaps capitalism’s most fundamental feature is the way how it organizes the economy. In a capitalist society, one will find two groups. The first group consists of the ‘owners’ who possess the means of production. And since they own everything, they get to decide. The second group is made up of ‘workers’, people who do not own any capital and thus have to offer their labor to one of the owners whom they then have to obey. The owners, in their position of power, not only decide what is produced by whom and how, they also decide how the rewards are shared. Unsurprisingly, they give a disproportionate amount to themselves, thus creating inequality.
Unfortunately, capitalism’s ability to generate inequality does not end here. The power and wealth which the owners accumulate are used by them to gain control over the political system, making sure that politicians implement policies that are beneficial to them, no matter the consequences to others. This then increases their wealth even more, which allows them to further extend their control over politics. It is this vicious cycle that for the past several decades has resulted in increasingly higher levels of inequality. And, as will be discussed below, there is nothing inevitable about this process.
Peterson likes to illustrate the inevitability by explaining the game of Monopoly. In this popular game, everyone begins out equal, with equal chances to win. However, Peterson points out, when the game gets underway, some people start to gain money while others see their possessions decline. In the end, which does not have to take long, one player owns everything while everyone else has nothing. Despite equal beginnings, inequality is inevitable.
Interestingly, however, the game of Monopoly was invented by a woman named Elizabeth Magie in 1903, in order to demonstrate to people the evils of capitalism and the tendency of the system to produce tremendous inequality. She originally created two versions of the game, one in which capitalist style competition based on winners and losers prevailed, and another version based on players sharing the wealth that was being produced. In the end, only the first version survived and became the game of Monopoly as we know it. Monopoly’s story is thus one about presenting an alternative to an inequality generating capitalist system, not one to illustrate its inevitability.
Compared to his views on the causes of inequality, Peterson’s ideas on the solution similarly suffer from major problems.
Inequality cannot be solved, Peterson’s emphasizes, through the political or economic system, or through any sociological force. To back up this rather remarkable claim, he cites a study that compares left and right-wing governments with the GINI inequality coefficient and shows that inequality is not related to left or right wing governments. He also seems to argue that there is no viable alternative to capitalism.
Now, everyone who has studied history, especially labor history, knows that inequality can be addressed through the economic and political system. It is also not difficult to illustrate. Take for instance the average percentage of employees who have joined a union in the OECD (the rich) countries, and correlate this with the GINI inequality coefficient, and one will find a negative correlation of about -0.45 to -0.5. This number would make any social scientist, such as Peterson, very happy, because it signifies a relationship that is somewhere between moderate and strong. It tells you that as the percentage of people who are members of a union goes up, the inequality in that country goes down. It is important to keep in mind, however, that a correlation does not imply causation. Perhaps less inequality motivates people to join unions, or perhaps there is a third factor that explains both. But considering the mechanisms at work, it is likely that increased union membership reduces inequality, and it is not hard to see why.¹
Unions are ways for workers to organize and use their collective power to take on inequality. Unions confront the owners directly to demand a more equal distribution of the rewards. Unions also pressure the political system to pay attention to the workers’ needs, and in doing so organized labor, when strong enough, is able to break the vicious cycle by which the owners increasingly control the political system. Every major social change, be it the abolition of slavery, the introduction of democracy or women’s rights, they have all come through exactly this process: organized groups of people putting pressure on the political system to force change.
It is also interesting to examine Peterson’s claim that there is no viable alternative to capitalism (he does view capitalism as the lesser of all evils though). Peterson uses the frequently employed technique to present a world in which only two options exist: Western capitalism and Soviet-style socialism (Peterson uses the terms communism and Marxism), by which is meant a totalitarian dictatorship. And because of the violence and ultimate failure of the Soviet Union, that system has already been proven unsuccessful, leaving only capitalism as a viable option.
There are two major problems with this statement. First, the Soviet Union was not socialist and second, there exists a third alternative which is real socialism.
Now, Peterson immediately objects to the notion that the Soviet Union was not socialist (he uses the terms communist and Marxist). According to him, anyone who believes this, is either a naive fool or is so “ignorant of history that it is… utterly appalling”. History, however, tells a different story.
If one decides to study socialism, for instance as understood by 19th century workers in the United States, or by European and Russian Marxists before the Russian Revolution for that matter, one finds that the core belief of socialism is that workers should be in control of production. Instead of dividing people into owners who own and workers who obey as capitalism does, socialism introduces democracy into the economy, allowing workers to make economic decisions democratically.²
With this definition of socialism in mind, one casual glance at the Soviet Union immediately reveals that there existed no trace of it, a fact that good Soviet scholars also recognize. If anything, the Soviet Union was the exact opposite. Within the Soviet Union, there existed a small group of people at the top who made all the decisions. Their orders were then handed down below, and at the bottom, where most people found themselves, you simply had to obey. To talk about socialism in the Soviet Union makes absolutely no sense. The fact that both Soviet and Western propaganda were claiming that this Soviet dictatorship equaled socialism does not make it so. To use the Soviet Union as an example that socialism has failed and that therefore there exists no viable alternative to capitalism is historically incorrect.³
One interesting side note to this is that the structure of power as it existed in the Soviet Union can also be found in the dominant institution of the Western capitalist world: the corporation. Both institutions, the corporation and the Soviet State, are strict hierarchies that do not tolerate democracy and instead place enormous powers in the hands of a few. Corporations do not display the kind of violence that the Soviet State exhibited, but in their structure of power, they show striking similarities. It may not be such a coincidence that in both worlds, the West and the Soviet Union, there existed massive inequality in terms of wealth and power. It does make one wonder though, how Peterson can consider corporate capitalism the best system humans can produce while at the same time denounce the repressive and hierarchical nature of the Soviet State.⁴
Whereas Peterson thus offers people a choice between two undemocratic and exploitive systems in which a few people own everything, there is an obvious alternative: real socialism based on a completely democratic society. But the idea that ordinary people would play a role in decision-making seems completely alien to Peterson and betrays his elitists’ views. Interestingly, this puts Peterson in the same category as certain individuals he so utterly despises, as will be discussed shortly.
Peterson, after having dismissed with several methods how to counter inequality, comes up with what he considers to be the only way to solve the problem: psychological intervention. Because there is nothing society can do to reduce inequality, the only option left is to teach people how to cope with an unequal world and to improve their ability in climbing up the ladder of success.
Although there is no doubt that psychological intervention can be of tremendous help and that psychologists like Jordan Peterson are of enormous value to society, the above position is not only wrong, it shows a resemblance to those who created the Soviet system.
To illustrate this point, it is useful to make a comparison with Lenin, someone who Peterson utterly despises. Lenin, as can be easily deduced from his writings, never was in favor of real socialism. He believed that ordinary people are too dumb and ignorant to understand what is good for them. In his famous article “What is to be done”, Lenin describes that only an elite group of leaders, the “Vanguard”, can create a new society. This Vanguard consists of a group of “intellectuals”, the “Intelligentsia”, the “advanced contingent”, the “talented leaders”, “wise men” with “special qualities” who “guide” and “direct the thoughts” of the workers.
Peterson’s position on how only a special group, one of which he is of course a member, can solve society’s problems bears some resemblance to Lenin’s views. They are both extremely elitists. The mere idea that people, ordinary people, are capable of changing the world into something better, does not resonate with either of them. For both Lenin and Peterson, only an elite special group can offer a solution, one that puts them in a privileged position within an exploitive system they want to maintain, and in case of Lenin, control.
Overall, the bottom line of Peterson’s story is that inequality is a natural law. Ordinary people can do nothing to change it. Although psychologists ought to teach people how they can take control over their lives, Peterson’s message on inequality is one that nurtures passivity and helplessness, which from the point of view of the privileged top 1%, is very beneficial to them. Either knowingly or unknowingly, Peterson behaves like a typical mainstream intellectual whose function is to come up with stories that make people accept the existing structures of power, no matter how unequal and unfair these structures are.
1. For the percentage of employees who are member of a trade union, see the OECD dataset which can be found here
2. For the GINI inequality coefficient, see the World Bank dataset which can be found here
3. For U.S. workers and socialism, see Ware, N. (1964). The Industrial Worker.
4.For the opposition to Lenin from fellow Bolsheviks, see Daniels, R. V. (1960). The Conscience of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in Soviet Russia.
5. See for instance Lewin, M. (2016). The Soviet Century. Verso Books.
6. For the comparison between Western corporations and the Soviet State, see Meyer, A. G. (1961) USSR INCORPORATED and the chapter on Stalinism and the Mono-Organizational Society by T. H. Rigby in Tucker, R. C. (1998) Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation, Transaction Publishers.