Jordan, we’ve been spending some time together recently on stage, talking, among other things, about God. But today I wonder if we can pivot to politics, and to one thing in particular, which has been on my mind, and which I know has been on your mind—which is the issue of where politics goes wrong. Where the right goes wrong in politics, and where the left goes wrong in politics. We should probably start with the right. The cliff edge is more vertiginous, it seems. What are your thoughts on that currently, of where the right of politics gets to go wrong? Dr. Jordan Peterson:
I think we have been able to box in the more unfortunate elements of the right. That’s probably a consequence, mostly, of moral deliberations undertaken after World War II. We seem to have come to a pretty general consensus, I would say, that claims of ethnic or racial superiority place you outside the realm of acceptable political discourse. That’s the cliff place, where dialog inevitably degenerates into conflict. I think the classic errors of the right are to fail to attend sufficiently to the tendency for hierarchies to degenerate into corruption, because of wilful blindness and rigidity—and, of course, that’s something that the left takes the right to task for, generally speaking. So there’s the hard line, which is ethnic identity as a mark of superiority, and then there’s a looser line, where there’s also error. I think the right errs in the same way that the left does, when they play identity politics. JP:
Generally, the way we’re conceptualizing the political landscape is right to left, as a distribution. But there’s another axis, which is, probably, collectivist versus individualist. And there’s collectivist left-wingers and there’s collectivist right-wingers. Insofar as the left-wingers and the right-winger are collectivist, then they’re wrong. You see that on the right, with their claims of ethnic and national superiority. DM:
Do you hear some of that coming back more? JP:
I don’t know. The thing is, there’s a lot of noise in the press, especially as you move towards the radical left, about the alt-right. But I have a hard time putting my finger on who, exactly, these alt-right people are. If you look at the radical left, it’s obvious that they have a stranglehold, I would say, on the universities, and especially the humanities and social sciences. One of the consequences of that is that the doctrine that those entities have been producing is spilling over into society, to a large degree. There’s a lot of noise about the alt-right, but I can’t figure out who the alt-right people are. DM:
Has anyone met them? JP:
Well, you know, what happens in the United States, I think, is that anything that smacks of support for Trump is immediately associated with the alt-right. But the situation in the United States is way more complicated than that. The Americans have been split 50 per cent Democrat and 50 per cent Republican—like, as close to 50 per cent as it can possibly be—for four decades. So I don’t see that the election of Trump indicates the rise of something approximating, even, right-wing populism in the United States. It’s more complicated in Europe, because the border and immigration issues are much hotter topics in Europe. It seems, to me, that there is a rise of ethno-nationalist parties on the farther reaches of the right. DM:
Something like that. Yeah. JP:
Yeah. But it’s so difficult to get accurate information now, perversely enough, that it’s very difficult to evaluate. DM:
One of the strange things about the whole alt-right thing is the extent to which it’s a way to avoid facing up to the reality that half the country voted for Donald Trump. It seems to be some kind of coping mechanism. When you were doing Bill Maher’s show, you mentioned, when you got on the panel bit
, that perhaps you went down a level underneath the one that the panel wanted to talk about, which was just riffing on the awfulness of Donald Trump. You rightly pointed out that we can all play the game of who can be the rudest about Donald Trump. But you tried to go down to the level of, "what would you do, if you took the President away from the people who voted for him?" by indictment, or whatever the mechanism would be. They seemed utterly baffled by your question. JP:
Well, they were stunned at the fact that someone would pose that question. I sat there, and I thought about that for a long time, whether I would ask that question, because I knew I was jumping out of the game they were all playing. It’s like, "well, you have to live with these people. Do you really think that they’re all so stupid? Is that really your theory about why Trump was elected?" The whole Maher phenomenon is quite interesting, because he interviewed Ben Shapiro
a while after that, and took everyone, including Shapiro, to task for the absolute stupidity of the catastrophe of Trump, without ever reflecting on the fact that clearly, in the United States, the liberal left lost the election. Trump didn’t win. Everyone thought Hillary was going to win. She had it in the bag. She only needed 70,000 additional votes. If she wouldn’t have played identity politics, she would have won.
Maher, when he went after Shapiro, took no responsibility whatsoever for the failures of the liberal left. It was all, "well, the stupidity of the people who voted for Trump." My sense—because I’ve talked to many, many people who voted for Trump—is that it isn’t like people on the center right and the right, the Republican end of the distribution, were overwhelmingly impressed with what Trump had to offer. But that was the risk they were willing to take. It was partly because they were so disenfranchised by the identity politics that the Democrats have descended into. They have nothing else to offer, the Democrats. It’s identity politics, or nothing. DM:
To an extent, the Trump-Brexit phenomenon is often uncomfortably put together. Lots of things make them different, but one of the things that makes them similar is the attempt by people to push away any attempt to explain what has happened, to come up with reason after reason, other than the possibility that half the people have a different view of politics. There seems to be some kind of coping mechanism going on, to keep pushing away the realization that your own side has got some fundamental misunderstanding. JP:
Well, I think it’s very easy for people, who don’t want to evaluate their own beliefs, to assume that everything the other side is saying is a consequence of their personal moral failings, and their ignorance, and their malevolence, basically. It’s not helpful. I particularly think it’s unhelpful in the United States, because it isn’t obvious to me that the underlying dynamic has really changed that much, given that it’s been 50-50 for 20 years, and it was 50-50 in the last election. DM:
The alt-right may be very, very hard to pin down or find. Anyone who would be a member of it would get a lot publicity—and have, in some ways. A couple of people who identified have never had more coverage than they have being identified in that way. But I sense there are things that are murmuring under the discussion on the right, it seems to me, that make me, at any rate, very, very uncomfortable, very worried. The one I started to notice a little while ago was, probably, in the last year or so. It was the increase of people—Q&A, sometimes; you know, meet and greets, and things after speeches—where I found there was at least one person who asked me about IQ. Now that had never happened until about a year or two ago. I was never asked about that. For a long time I said, "it’s not my thing. I don’t know about it. That’s why I haven’t discussed it." But it was always this sort of thing—"you should look into it." I could never put my finger on why I was uncomfortable about it, other than the fact that somebody I knew, who I was innately suspicious of, raised it first. JP:
Well, there is a danger on the right: the identity politics danger. The right will play identity politics different than the left. The leftist theory is, "well, we should all segregate ourselves into our identity groups, and then those who are the oppressor groups should repent, and feel terrible for their oppressive acts, and step aside." That’s one way of playing identity politics. Another way of playing identity politics is, "to hell with you. I will pick my identity group, based on race or ethnicity, whatever it is that I feel most comfortable with, since that’s the game, and then I’ll play to win."
My sense is that there will be plenty of people attracted to the identity politics games that you win. The people who have gone after me from the right wing have basically gone after me for exactly that reason. They say, "Peterson stresses individuality and individual responsibility, but fails entirely to appreciate the fact that we do manifest ourselves in groups"—which is exactly the same thing that the radical leftists argue—and, "it’s necessary for those of us who wish to preserve our culture, et cetera, to group together in our homogenous group, and act collectively to take our territory back." Something like that.
That’s very much a fascist perspective, fundamentally. But if the fundamental game is identity politics, it isn’t obvious why the logical choice is to lose. When I discuss this, I tell people that the whole idea—that you should view the world through the lens that makes your collective identity paramount—is a pathology game, no matter who’s playing it. It produces a reversion to divisive tribalism, and small, diverse tribes of people that mostly fight. DM:
But why do you think IQ and the IQ differential question has become such an edge issue for some people? Why that one? JP:
Well, the IQ literature, in general, is an ethical nightmare. I think that the right-wingers, who are using IQ as a lever, use it to buttress claims of ethnic and group superiority. DM:
Of course, the possibility that that might occur is partly why the left has objected to, you could say, IQ research, since, well, probably for the last 30 years. It’s interesting, because when the IQ tests were first developed, they were developed in France, and then they were used in England for years by left-leaning parties. This was part of a conscious plan to produce upward social mobility; the idea that you could objectively assess intellectual prowess: allow the selection of, let’s call them "deserving poor," using the Victorian or the Edwardian terminology, who were of great intellectual promise amongst the working class, and pull them up into the educated middle class, or elite, and that that would be of benefit to them and everyone else.
The problem with IQ tests is that they do produce group differences, and that’s unbelievably complicated and horrible. It’s complicated because it isn’t obvious how you should group people, if you’re going to do group analysis of IQ. For example, there’s more genetic diversity among Africans than there is among all the other human populations. So exactly how you put people in the bin of black, caucasian, and asian, let’s say—which are generally regarded as the three major racial groups—is far from obvious. That’s a basic scientific conundrum that’s right at the bottom of the IQ problem. But if you use the typical groupings, you do get ethnic differences. That starts to become extremely problematic, because the question, then, is "why?" The answer to that is, "we don’t know."
You think, "well, the most commonly discussed ethnic difference is the propensity for people who are defined as black—the way that Americans define black—to perform more poorly on standardized tests." Then the accusation is that the tests are somehow biased, or that there’s socioeconomic factors at work, or, perhaps, at the bottom of the desirability hierarchy, that there are biological factors at work. No one has nailed any of that down. If you give that data credence, then it leaves you with the terrible question of, "what do you do about those differences? And how do you conceptualize them?" It can also be used as a justification of a kind of racial hierarchy. But then, if you reverse it, you see the reverse problem emerging with the issue of Ashkenazi Jews, because they’re overrepresented in most positions of competence, let’s say, and authority—radically overrepresented, especially at the top. Unless you’re willing to posit something like IQ differential that will account for it, you have to come up with a conspiratorial theory. This is the thing about IQ research: no matter how you interpret it, you’re basically screwed. It’s partly because the facts of the world don’t necessarily line up with our a priori moral desires. DM:
What we would really like would be for there to be no important differences in important function across all the groups that people are put in or identify with. But it doesn’t work out that way. JP:
One of the problems that I’ve been thinking about for a while—it’s such an edge issue. I sort of fear it coming in, somehow, to a much more mainstream position, unless there’s an attitude taken towards it. Obviously it seems that the left has been trying for a long time—and other people have—to keep it away. As you say, it’s a bell curve, at least, and the time before that—just keep it away as a discussion. It’s obviously bubbling away. So it seems, to me, that you have to find some attitude towards it.
The fundamental problem is that the best predictor of long-term life outcome is IQ. That’s a real problem. Now it’s not that great a predictor. That’s the first thing. If you’re optimistic about IQ, you’d say that it predicts about 25 per cent in* the variants of long-term life outcome. Other factors, like conscientiousness, which is the next best predictor—it’s a Big Five
trait—accounts for about 9 per cent, 10 per cent. Something like that. So the two best predictors combined only account for 35 per cent of the difference in life outcome, leaving 65 per cent for other factors, which is quite a lot. So those factors could include things like prejudice and systemic bias, and so forth. But a lot of it’s also luck, and health, and all the things that determine whether you fall off the edge of the world.
The problem with IQ is that there’s no damn way it’s going away. People say, "well, IQ is not really a good measure of intelligence." It’s like, "sorry, people. This is where it gets truly ugly." There is no phenomena in social sciences, period, that is on firmer statistical and conceptual footing than IQ. There’s no phenomena that’s more robust. If you give people a set of tests that assess abstraction, and then you measure their average score on the set of tests of abstraction, and then you rank order them, you have an IQ measured. That’s all you have to do. The measure’s no different than your average performance across a set of tasks that require abstraction. DM:
The problem you sort of come back to each time is the manner in which people want to use the data—the ends to which they sort of find it useful. The first thing is that this is, it seems to me, becoming a way in which some people on the right are trying to come back with very ugly ideas, and very ugly prejudices. Secondly, it strikes me that the overemphasis on IQ by some people—I’m not saying by everyone. I’m not saying to neglect the literature. But the overemphasis, among other things, makes this error of thinking that intelligence, as it were, is the only important trait in human beings. JP:
I think the problem, there, is not exactly so much the definition of intelligence as the only important, defining characteristic of human beings, but to conflate intelligence with value or moral virtue. DM:
Yeah, and worth. JP:
Yes, worth. That’s the really pernicious element. There’s an underlying assumption that, if there are differences in people with regards to IQ, somehow, there are differences in their worth. There are differences in their economic worth, but that doesn’t mean that there are differences in their intrinsic worth. That’s something that has to be very, very carefully laid out. DM:
The novelist Iain McEwan
once said that all readers have to, at some point, contend with the awkward fact that some of the nicest people they know have never read a book. JP:
Right, right. OK, let’s go into the IQ thing more terribly. IQ tests produce ethnic differences. You might say, "well, that constitutes a sign of bias." It’s like, "OK, if that was true, then IQ tests, when you’re using them to predict real-life performance within groups, they would under-predict the real-life performance of ethnic groups where IQ scores are lower. But they don’t." There’s no evidence of bias in terms of prediction. Now you could say, "well, that means the whole system is rigged. The IQ system is rigged, and the life outcome system is rigged." That would be, basically, the position of the egalitarian left. It’s like, "fair enough. That could be the case."
But there’s another ugly thing that lurks here, too. Let’s say that you decide that the way you’re going to deal with the fact that there’s ethnic differences in IQ, in the literature, is that you’re going to throw IQ out completely, and not bother with it. Some universities are starting to do this, because they’re throwing away tests like the SAT. People say that these standardized tests aren’t IQ tests, but that’s because they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, because they’re absolutely and clearly IQ tests. Any test that tests a reasonable set of questions of abstraction that you get a total score from, or an average, is an IQ test.
So people can wave their hands about that all they want, but that just means they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. So let’s say we decided to just scrap the idea of IQ. Well, here’s a problem. This is actually a problem Charles Murray and Herrnstein talked about in The Bell Curve
. It was never really mentioned, though. It’s actually an argument that the left should be very sensitive to. Our hierarchies are increasingly IQ predicated. And so what’s happening is that the left is going to miss what’s going to dispossess most people—that they are, hypothetically, concerned about—over the next 30 or 40 years.
We’re producing a cognitive hierarchy, and, increasingly, the spoils of the hierarchy are going to people who are in the cognitive stratosphere, so to speak. It’s one thing to be really smart. It gives you an edge in a complex society, especially one that’s changing very rapidly, like ours. But if you’re really smart, and you know how to use a computer? You are so far ahead of people that it’s like you’re a member of a different species. If you don’t think that’s going to be the fundamental problem of the coming age, let’s say, then you’re not very awake. DM:
I suppose—just to wrap up this issue for the time being—that the thing I’ve been trying to work out in my own disturbance about this issue for a while… I suppose I recently managed to hone it down to this. It’s not that I think it should be ignored. I don’t think it can be denied. But I suppose one of the things that makes me so uncomfortable about the IQ thing is that, if the people who are most interested in it keep pushing it like this, I see some terrible concatenation of nightmares—because, of course, this isn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s also, in my view, happening at a point when—let me put it this way: the concept of the sanctity of the individual, whether you define that in a religious context, or in the kind of secular-religious context which some of us currently hold this idea, is sort of eroding in our society. The combination of that happening at the same time as an obsession in IQ, in the century ahead of us, just has a potential of a catastrophe of 20th century proportions. That’s a reason why I just fear that, if this isn’t dealt with in a reasonable way, it comes at us in the most unreasonable way imaginable, somewhere down the line. JP:
I think that’s a genuine concern. There’s going to be elements of it that are going to come at us in an unreasonable way. Look at what’s happened at Harvard. I mean, one of the things that’s happened there—and the Asians, of course, are the wildcard in this whole enterprise. The affirmative action policies in the U.S. were hypothetical set up, at least in part, to bring so-called minority—it’s not like Asians are a minority, but to bring minority people up. DM:
Access to the university. JP:
Sure. But it turns out that, if you use an unbiased selection process, then you over-select for Asians. You over-select for Asians and Jews. It’s like, "oh, my God!" DM:
Which is why they’re now discovering that Harvard’s had to come up with these techniques, to try to downgrade the Asians. Downgrading them on… JP:
Personality. The funny thing, too, is that it’s not that they’re downgrading them on personality, because they don’t use objective personality measures, which they could use. One of the things that’s really cool about the Big Five
, especially measures of conscientiousness—measures of conscientiousness do not produce ethnic differences. One of the ways of putting together a selection battery that’s objective, let’s say—which would mean both blind to peripheral characteristics such as race, but also capable of predicting the desired outcomes—is to produce a battery of tests that blends cognitive assessment with genuine personality assessment.
Actually, it’s so interesting, because in the American context, you’re actually bound to do that by law. If you’re selecting employees, you’re bound to use the most valid and reliable current method of selection. That’s instantiated into law. The American psychological association has stated firmly that the proper way to do that is to use a balance of cognitive tests and personality tests. But virtually no one does that, for all sorts of extremely complicated and absurd reasons.
Now, then you might say, "well, we can’t use the cognitive tests, because they produce ethnic differences"—and you can moderate that by interleaving personality, which is one way of dealing with it—"We’re going to use something else." Well, it turns out that whatever else you use is more biased than the thing you’re fleeing from. That’s what’s manifesting itself at Harvard. "Well, we’ll use our subjective judgement." You know, the Harvard people have been hand waving about the fact that their bloody admission criteria are so sophisticated that you can’t capture them with mere quantitative analysis. DM:
This is their latest one, after trying to make sure nobody has access to what they were actually doing. JP:
"We’re so sophisticated that we couldn’t possibly quantify it." It’s like, "that’s not sophisticated: that’s prejudice." DM:
At every single stage, Harvard University, in this case, have done everything they can to cover over the actual fact that they are being biased for ethnic reasons in their selections. It’s an extraordinary sight. JP:
So what’s happening is that wherever subjectivity is allowed to enter into the equation, the Asians are downgraded as a consequence of "personality," which isn’t personality. It’s actually the subjective sense that the evaluators produce, when they read through the applications, and they know that the applicant is Asian. DM:
Judging the person based on racial characteristics, without having met them. JP:
There’s a variety of things that are appalling about that. One of them, of course, is the denial of the opportunity to attend a top-tier university like Harvard, for the students who were qualified to attend; the Asian students. But there’s another element to this that’s also, equally, pernicious, and, in some sense, more self-serving. If you set up your society properly—and this is the equality of opportunity doctrine—it’s in everyone’s best interest to exploit the talented maximally, right? In every domain of productive endeavour, a small proportion of people do most of the productive work. And so you want to take advantage of those people, those 1 in 1,000 people, or 1 in 10,000 people, who are mathematically gifted, for example, or gifted in whatever way they happen to be gifted. So if you don’t select your top-tier candidate—so let’s say the Asian students, in the case of Harvard—then society doesn’t get a chance to exploit them properly, and everyone ends up poorer. Apart from the fact that each individual doesn’t get their opportunity, there’s a social cost, too, that is not trivial.
Of course, the other issue is that the criteria are seen to be inequitable, because they actually are. That produces a terrible amount of cynicism about the institutions themselves. The horror of objective testing is that it’s biased. The more profound horror is that, no matter what you replace it with, you replace it with something that’s even more biased. So it’s like, "well, good luck thinking your way out of that conundrum." DM:
In your Munk debate
in Canada, recently, you got into a fascinating subject, which I wanted to turn to, which is the question of, "if we are in agreement on where the right goes wrong"—racial differences being the most important thing, exacerbating such differences, and so on. The contiguous fall that we can all identify, that can happen to the extremes of the right. We identify that. You quite rightly said to your debate opponents, "where is it that the left goes wrong?" And rather like your conversation with the panel on Bill Maher
about Trump voters, absolutely nobody was able to even understand what you were starting to get at, and nobody picked you up on it. JP:
Oh, yeah. That was a question that went nowhere. DM:
Just evaporated. We’ve had massive changes on the political left in this country, in the last two years. This question of where the left goes wrong seems— JP:
It’s a crucial question. DM:
—absolutely vital. JP:
It’s absolutely crucial. Yeah. It’s a question that intellectuals—in particular, I would say—are at terrible fault for not addressing over the last, virtually, 100 years. The intellectuals, roughly speaking, have been complicit in failure to define the excesses of the left. DM:
Why is that? JP:
Well, I think it’s partly because intellectuals tend to be left leaning. The best predictor for leaning left is a trait called openness, which is associated, to some degree, with cognitive ability, but more importantly with creativity. Left-leaning people don’t like boundaries between things, which is also why I think the left-leaning people can’t draw boundaries within their own domain. They don’t like borders, as we can certainly tell. They’d rather have the borders open. Why? Because the more open the borders are between things, the more opportunity there is for information flow.
Left-leaning open people like information flow. They think, "well, the net benefit of free information flow is positive." It’s like, "fair enough. But that doesn’t mean that there should be no barriers between things," which is the conservative perspective. It’s not only information that flows across open borders. All sorts of things flow across open borders. Things get muddy and confused, if there’s no conceptual differences between people. So there’s an argument between the right and the left about where the borders should be, and how porous they should be. That’s an argument that always has to occur.
The problem on the left is that clearly, clearly, absolutely, indisputably, if the right can go too far—and the evidence for that is the catastrophe of Auschwitz, the catastrophe of the Nazis. All that death and suffering is evidence of wrong, which is accepted by the left—then equal evidence exists that that can happen on the left. In fact, perhaps even more evidence. If you don’t think the evidence is credible, then there’s something wrong with you. DM:
There’s something that’s gone wrong from the 20th century, and is still going wrong on this. I think I’ve said to you before that there seems to be this presumption still, if this is a political center, that if you take one step to the political right—say, by wanting to have lower taxes—that makes you right wing. And beyond that, it’s just a vertiginous hurtle down to Nazism. It’s lower taxes, alt-right, Nazism. JP:
And on the left of the spectrum, it’s possible to step left, beyond the left, run left, keep running, and the end of the running never includes the gulag. JP:
Never. Never. And not in the education systems either. No one knows about it. The first time my students at the University of Toronto hear about what happened in the Soviet Union is in my personality class. It’s like, "what the hell? First of all, really? In a personality class?" The reason I bring it up is because Solzhenitsyn
drew an existential link between the failure of the individual psyche and the propensity for people to engage in the great lie, and the creation of these totalitarian states. So I view it as an extension of existential psychology and philosophy. That’s how I slot it into my classes. But the students otherwise don’t know.
It’s like, "oh, really? We had 100 million corpses pile up, and damn near put the entire planet to the torch, because of the tension between the West and the radical left. We’re just going to sweep that under the rug, like that never happened?" It’s very easy to be extremely annoyed about this, and even morally outraged. It’s hard to avoid the temptation, but there is, actually, a technical problem here. It’s one that the right is, perhaps, just as incapable of solving. This is the issue that you brought up. It’s like, "OK, exactly when do things go too far on the left?" The answer is, "we don’t know." It might be because there isn’t a single issue on the left that marks out the degeneration into pathological ideology, like claims of racial difference that support the notion of superiority do on the right.
Maybe it’s a pathological combination of five good ideas. Something like that. I believe, now, that there’s a nexus of ideas that mark out the left as too extreme: diversity, inclusivity, equity, white privilege—that’s not a phrase I’m very fond of—and exaggerated claims of systemic racism. It’s kind of like a mantra. It’s something like that, as well as the verbiage around the oppressive patriarchy. Jesus, you know? That’s a complicated box. There’s an interaction between all those terms. You can make a case for diversity. Should all elementary school teachers be women? Well, perhaps not. Should all nurses be women? Perhaps not. Should all plumbers be men? Well, perhaps not. DM:
You only have fairness, when you have more female engineers. JP:
Well, yes. And if we’re going to have a society where men and women are competing on a roughly equal basis, do we want a situation where all the engineers are men? Perhaps not. I mean, I don’t know the answer to these questions, because choice matters. So each of these individual leftist propositions has a domain of reasonableness about it, and then it goes too far. And then the aggregation of them also goes too far, but we can’t tell when. DM:
What makes it harder, it seems to me, is the issue of motive. The late Robert Conquest
, one of the great historians of the nightmare that happened in Russian in the 20th century, was once asked, late in life, about this issue of the intrinsic evil of the two totalitarianisms of the 20th century. Even Conquest found it hard to put his finger on it. But he said, "in some way, the Nazis do seem worse." JP:
I’ve often thought about this. I think the one thing you can’t avoid—when it comes down to it, there is some kind of intrinsic feeling that remains, that, whereas the Nazi regime gets it wrong for horrible and the worst possible reasons, somehow, every single time that the communists had control of a country and turned it into dust, it was, somehow, the product of good intentions. JP:
Well, there’s a universalism about the communist ethos that definitely isn’t there on the Nazi side. The Nazi claim is, "this is for us, and definitely not for you." The exclusionary principle is built right into it, right at the beginning, whereas on the communist side, at least in principle, if not in reality, the coming utopia was for everyone. There was the song of the brotherhood of man, and the idea that people could be included regardless of their origin. That seems like part of it.
There’s an evil built into the principle itself that the Nazis ran with, that is absent with the communists. But the truth of the matter is, to some degree, that it didn’t matter, because the tally of bodies was equivalent on both sides of the equation. So even if there is a lack of a certain toxic principle at the outset of the communist doctrine, it doesn’t make it one wit less catastrophic. It might even be worse, in some sense, because you can’t put your finger on it. My sense is that a line crossed on the left is equality of outcome. It’s part of the identity politics pathology. First of all, there’s something wrong with construing the world as if your group identity is paramount. That’s bad. That’s a nonstarter. It’s not so easy to exactly say why. DM:
Funnily enough, that is being pushed, currently, on the left. But it will, as you said before, benefit parts of the right in the end. JP:
Oh, definitely. There’s just no reason for the right not to capitalize on that. DM:
It’s an unbelievable goal that’s being created. A horrific goal opening down the road. We can all see it coming. JP:
Well, as soon as you say, "yes, your group identity is paramount," then you allow people, who say, "well, not only is it paramount; it’s superior." Well, that’s not that much of a transformation of the perspective, especially when you’re also saying, to certain groups, that you should be playing to lose. Anyone sensible is going to look at that, and say, "well, why shouldn’t I play to win? If group identity is paramount, why shouldn’t my group just win?" DM:
You can identify those people as being on the far right these days. The few people that have got this massive press attention for being called alt-right—you notice one thing in particular with them: the flirt with the dangers of fascism. You can see it when they’re caught on video. They like to drop in terms that resonate… They flirt with fascism, and they flirt with Nazism. This is, rightly, something that we pick up on, and our ears are attuned to it.
In London, where we’re sitting, last week, on a morning television chat show, a young woman who was invited on got into a row with the presenter
. Because he supported Trump, and she was anti-Trump, he said, "well, since you loved Obama so much…" "I didn’t love Obama," she says. "I’m a communist. I didn’t love Obama. I’m literally a communist, you idiot."
This, as we speak, has become not just enormously popular, but giggle-some on the left, in this country. I’m not talking about the far left. I’m talking about the left, right up to and involved with Her Majesty’s opposition. "I’m literally a communist" has just been made into a t-shirt by a group on the left, and they’re selling it—this in an era when we’ve been endlessly told, "the only thing you do, if you see a fascist, is to punch them in the face." There seems to be—as I’ve always said—a supply and demand problem with fascists: there aren’t enough for the demand there seems to be, to find them.
But yet, here you have, live on television, "I’m literally a communist." It’s unimaginable. We all know it’s unimaginable that someone would say, "I’m literally a fascist" on TV, and everyone would find it wonderful, and everyone would make a "I’m literally a fascist" t-shirt. So this 20th century error, this educational error, seems, to me, to be having real-world consequences. JP:
It’s a catastrophe. It means that we learn half the lesson. We sort of learned half the lesson of the 20th century, right? And thank God we sort of learned half the lesson. But the other half has not been learned, and that’s not acceptable, not in the least. The data in the United States indicates that 1 out of 5 social science professors are self-proclaimed Marxists. It’s like, "you’re a Marxist? Really? Seriously, you’re a Marxist?" It’s like, "yeah, and not only am I a Marxist, it’s one of the things that makes me morally virtuous." "Well, what about the 20th century?" "Well, that wasn’t real communism."
I know what that means. It’s the most arrogant possible statement. What it means is, "you know those people who tried it before? They didn’t really have the same nuanced understanding of the sophistication of Karl Marx’s revelation that I have, or the moral character that I have. If I had been placed in charge of the Russian Revolution—the utopia? That was only a couple of decades away." That’s what it means. DM:
I once wrote about this with Eric Hobsbawm
, the famous left-wing historian who, just shortly before his death, was asked in an interview by Michael Ignatieff
, "if it took another 20 million dead to achieve full communism [in the state he wanted,] would it have been worth it?" He replied, "yes, it would have been worth it." Again, it’s unimaginable that this could happen in the opposite direction, but particularly unimaginable, still, is this idea, even after the 20th century, that these Marxist, "literally a communist" people still are standing on the piles of tens of millions of skulls, saying, "a bit more violence, and we might get to utopia." JP:
Always one more murder away from utopia. Well, and the way that the leftists defend themselves is by saying things, like, "well, what about all the deaths caused by capitalism? You’re not factoring them into the equation." Of course, the problem, there, is that most systems manifest themselves in various forms of bloody excess. And so how you tally up the bodies depends on where you draw the boundaries around your conceptual systems. If you include the entire history of the Western expansion into the New World, say, over the last 400 years, and you decide that’s a manifestation of Western capitalism, then, well, the tallies, I suppose, look different. DM:
At the very least, you can say that the number of people raised out of poverty by capitalism is significantly higher than the people raised out of poverty by communism. JP:
I think there’s something crucial about that. One of the things that we will have to contend with is something like that, which is that every system is, in some sense, a system of oppression and bloodshed. But some of them also produce a modicum of wealth and happiness. I would say that’s the proper defence of what has been established, as a consequence of the primacy of the individual in the conceptual schemes of the West: our bloody oppressive system, at least, produces some modicum of wealth and wellbeing, whereas the communist system produced, if you’re an optimistic communist, no more deaths—which I believe is wrong—but zero wealth, and a tremendous amount of collateral destruction.
It could easily be that we’re in a position where all we have to choose from is horrible systems, some of which do some things right, now and then. That would be our system. That would be the Western system. I think there’s plenty of evidence for that—accruing evidence. What’s happening right now across the world is that, as the idea of individual sovereignty, and associated property rights, and freedom of choice, and so forth, are increasingly instantiated in developing countries, those countries are moving away from conditions of abysmal poverty at a staggering rate.
The right-wing types have to admit that hierarchies do dispossess, and that they have their elements of brutality about them. Even if they’re functional hierarchies, even if they’re competence predicated, they dispossess people. This is the cognitive problem, in large part. It’s going to bedevil us over the next 20 years. I mean, at least there are fewer people starving now. There are more people being lifted out of absolute poverty. Child mortality rates in Africa, now, match those in Europe in 1950. That’s cause for celebration. We have halved the number of people in absolute poverty since the beginning of the millennium. So I think we have to grow up, and be realistic, and say, "well, yes: all human systems of governance and organization are pathological, to some degree. But some of them are minimally functional, as well." DM:
An optimistic-pessimistic note on which to finish. Thank you. JP: