Love in the Time of Jordan Peterson

Peterson's ideas 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.

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 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.

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