University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson recently made some interesting comments on the Alt Right. On the one hand, he refused to condemn its thrust to re-establish identity and roots, identifying this with the Father archetype. However, he also made several criticisms which bear some examination. Some aspects of the response here have been elaborated further elsewhere.
The core of Peterson’s criticism lay in the charge that the Alt Right is incomplete. “The purpose of identification with the Father is to become the Son…and the problem with Nationalism is that it forgets that, it forgets that the purpose of the nation is to give rise to the individual.”
Peterson believes that the Alt Right misses that the state is a “pathological monster”. He also believes that a contradiction exists in the Alt Right: on the one hand, it has criticized the Left for expanding and using the power of the state to achieve its ends; on the other hand, it sees the answer in nationalism.
Both of these criticisms which reveal the extent to which the assumptions and frame of liberalism (in the historic sense of the word from 1776 and 1789 onward) influences not only Peterson, but also many critics of the social justice Left who continue to identify as libertarians, “classical liberals”, or even “conservatives”. This is the grouping often called the “Alt Lite” by nationalist opponents, because it bases its opposition on libertarian arguments about individualism and free speech rather than civilizational or racial vision.
First, we must address the quite teleological claim that the nation exists to create the individual. Now in a certain sense, this is true. A nation exists in its individuals, the same way a body exists in its cells. However, Peterson’s comments imply a certain moral individualism: the nation’s moral foundation is in the individuals it creates. In other words, we can identify a sort of moral foundation built on the individual from which the state derives legitimacy.
It is difficult to go further than this without questioning what sort of individual is desired by the person using this definition, and Peterson is certainly no orthodox liberal in how he sees individuals. However, we can speak more toward the general view of individuals championed by the libertarian and “classical liberal”, categories with which many of Peterson’s followers identify. This tradition envisions the individual as a sovereign, rights-bearing entity which by its own reason and will chooses how it interacts with others, what its moral vision is, and what truth is. Therefore, any entry into collective identity or action is only morally permissible by the consent of the individual.
Once admitted, much theorizing is done as to why therefore concepts like the state and law are valid, often entering into Lockean, Hobbesian, or similar ideas about social contract. The most consistent application of this principle leads one inescapably to anarchism. In the words of the American anarchist Lysander Spooner, “[the secessionist] had the same natural right to take up arms alone to defend his own property against a single tax-gatherer, that he had to take up arms in company with three millions of others, to defend the property of all against an army of tax-gatherers.”
However, this attempt at creating a moral axiom inescapably finds itself at war with the telos of Man’s social nature, which not only tends to but relies on hierarchy. Universally, any human who takes part in even the human society of a family has been brought into the world by parents and has his beliefs and concepts shaped by his family. His raising is dependent on the authority his parents hold over him, which they hold because he is dependent on them, and they are older and wiser than he. This is the principle of protego ergo obligo: I protect, therefore I obligate. This protection, and the resulting obedience, is the principle which creates the authoritative structures of the family and the state alike. Sovereign authority precedes the individual, be it in the family or in the state.
Unlike the Hobbesian and Lockean thought experiments about the state of nature which characterize Enlightenment thought, the truth is that such authority is inherent to all human society. The “state of nature” never existed. As Sir Robert Filmer demonstrates in Patriarcha, this same principle of the family expands without obstacle to the extended family, the clan, and ultimately to that Power on which is built the sovereign corporative structure we call the state. As the German political and legal philosopher Carl Schmitt states in his foundational work The Concept of the Political: “protego ergo obligo is the cogito ergo sum of the state”. Liberalism historically rejected this idea; of course, as it gained ascendency it took a more realistic view, to the extent that modern “liberals” approve of social engineering programs which go far beyond anything the “tyrants” of old ever dreamed.
This conception preserves the notion and place of the individual, but does not accept that the morality of the individual exists as separate from the collectives which form him. It restores to the individual a political nature, in Schmitt’s meaning of that word. Schmitt saw liberalism as not so much a political theory, but an anti-politics. It is a pure critique, which attempts to sever any claim of state, church, or nation to the individual. While this sounds desirable in some ways (after all, claims imply possible limitations), it is also what ultimately leads to the collapses of meaning which the Alt Right has arisen in response to. Liberalism, to use Peterson’s language, seeks to end the claims of the Father.
Is there a contradiction in the Alt Right on this topic? It would be more accurate to say that this topic is a dividing line between factions. The “Alt Lite” certainly does hold that the state is pathological and makes arguments based on free speech or individualist grounds. Although they may often signal nationalist, this is often framed as a nationalism which is needed to protect classical liberal norms. The identitarian faction rejects the libertarian frame and does not make arguments based on those grounds, but rather in terms of group dynamics and collective security.
The identitarian arguments implicitly have a better understanding of the nature of political conflict. The fatal error of the liberal “anti-SJW” frame is that its logical conclusion offers rights which depend on good faith behaviour to groups which will not act in good faith. In the heyday of the 60’s and 70’s, the New Left advocated free speech in campuses in order to get their voices heard and take control of the institutions. Once this was achieved, they burned the free speech bridge. Those who defended the New Left based on free speech failed both in their own political agenda and in the protection of campus free speech.
Today, the political forces which act to eliminate any chance of restoring our civilization have moved on from free speech. Trump proves an interesting case study. While the libertarian wastes money and resources on merely winning the possibility of argument, the Trump campaign ignored this and went right to the issues at hand: immigration, family, work, and security. The President reaped the results. While the Left must of course be endlessly hammered on its hypocrisy on the speech issue, the Right must focus on those battles which will actually decide the course of history. The family must be made secure and re-normalized. Migration policy must restore demographic integrity. The power of media and academia must be harnessed. The state – which is a necessary and emergent phenomenon in all large human societies – will either act for these ends, or against them. There is no “neutral” option. If it is to work for them, it will be because those who hold sovereign power decide to work for them.
To conclude, Peterson is absolutely correct that we must restore the Father and become sons. However, achieving this on a cultural and civilizational level is inseparable from achieving this as a vision of the state. If the state is pathological, it is because the people who make it up are pathological.
In that case, the only option is for the state to sort itself out. But then, it will also have to deal with the errors of liberalism, rather than basing its response on those same deceptions.