If this is not postmodernism—the very thing that Peterson decries—then what is? Peterson’s talks provide the same vague spirituality and self-esteem boosterism to young men that, say, Eckhart Tolle’s self-help books offer middle-aged women. Members of Tolle’s audience are usually mourning the loss of a loved one; Peterson’s are mourning their loss of place in a “feminized” society—both are given a strong dose of vague, sub-rational New Age jiggery-pokery and a few mechanical exercises to get the self-esteem and good feels flowing again. Once that happens, the person is ready to plug back into the fast-paced fluidity of the neoliberal—though Peterson is noticeably reluctant to use the N word—moral and economic machine. Their employment prospects may be poor, their wages stagnant, and their family and relationships frayed and broken, but they now get a sense that they can identify with the “Hero archetype” or understand the “deeper meaning” of some form of animal worship practiced by a tribe in Malaysia.
Moreover, the effect of his teaching is almost always to reduce every problem to a matter of personal will or maladjustment. Things like the present structure of the market economy or the existing political order are typically taken for granted by Peterson. Problems are almost always treated as a matter of individual psychology—which can, of course, be remedied by listening to Peterson—while any systemic political or economic critique is effectively proscribed.
Amid the vagueness of this advice one glimpses that it is nothing more than a self-help speech, something approaching a Jungian prosperity gospel.
Peterson is flogging a tired old horse. Up until recently the main source of morality for the Western ruling class was some version or other of mainstream liberal Protestantism. But this has fallen apart. The number of Americans identifying as mainline Protestant—which in practice typically means liberal Protestant—has fallen from 18.1 percent in 2007 to 14.7 percent in 2014; a fall of nearly 20 percent in just seven years, according to a 2015 Pew study. Peterson has simply taken the fading echoes of this tradition and combined them with psychobabble and mysticism to give ex-Protestants an easy consumerist spirituality—one that helps them adjust themselves to the moral and economic chaos of late neoliberal-postmodern culture and economy. Historians may well look back and see the ideology that Peterson is peddling as a sort of desperate death rattle of a dying cultural tradition.