The Man of Our Times?
On Mr. Robot, Alienation and Jordan B. Peterson
Many years from now, when we look back at this past decade gone by, with some confidence, I think we’ll say, “Sure, the whole world went to shit, but hey, at least we had some great TV shows.” There’s been much discussion of a contemporary Golden Age of Television, ever since the iconic shows of the 2000s, The Wire, The Sopranos etc. paved the way for the serialised format to arguably overtake the cinematic as a constant source of innovation, subversion, and overall quality. And while there is no shortage of duds (particularly high-budget duds, ahem, Netflix), there’s also been a non-stop supply of terrific programming, from Game of Thrones (yes, even despite the recent drop in writing standards) to The Leftovers to Black Mirror to Fargo and countless others, which have revolutionised the scope of what a TV series can be. Yet when looking for the one show that truly captures the Zeitgeist of the late 2010s, of the world post-2008 global financial crisis, there could already be a case made for Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot. For those who haven’t seen it yet, it’s the story of hacker Elliot Alderson, a morphine-addict and genius who also suffers from crippling depression and social anxiety, who gets approached by a mysterious man named Mr. Robot with a plan to bring down capitalism as we know it. So far, having completed its third season of a planned five, the story has been completely over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek (the world’s biggest conglomerate in this universe is actually called EvilCorp), and a joyride of gorgeous visuals and unpredictable twists. While there have been many recent portrayals of post-apocalyptic worlds in popular culture, Mr. Robot truly encapsulates the feeling of living in the end of the world as it is happening, much like the ever-shifting and uncertain world of the post-truth Trump era, and the perpetual sense of existential dread that it entails. However, what makes Mr. Robot truly stand out as the show with its finger on the pulse is its portrayal of a mind under the constant duress of life under late consumerism, as the distinctions between mind and machine slowly begin to disintegrate, as is the case today. It directly addresses the mental health epidemic at the heart of, and endemic to, modern capitalism.
YouTube channel Pattern Theory have done an excellent series of videos on the series (spoiler warning for seasons 1 and 2), and one of the central themes they discuss is that of alienation. Of course it was Marx who originally discussed the concept as being the estrangement of the individual from the products of their labour. When he was writing in the mid-19th century Europe was itself undergoing seismic changes, with the true onset of industrialisation and capitalism as the dominant economic system. In such a world, where wage labour and mass production were fast becoming the norm, this estrangement could be seen in the specialisation (division) of labour, and that within the confines of private property, the product was no longer the worker’s, but rather of the capitalist. In a way, all economic and social theorising aside, this could be seen as the true essence of Marx’s ideology, the lament at the wasted potential of the human spirit and individuality as it became a just a cog in a giant machine. While the world we inhabit today is in many ways vastly different to Marx’s, the concept of alienation has most certainly persevered, and is perhaps more present today than ever before, just under slightly different parameters. As the post-industrial nations of the world changed, over the course of the 20th century, from a society of producers to a society of consumers, from manufacturing to services, this relationship between the individual and their labour became ever more ephemeral and hard to define, and in turn this sense of alienation in effect became the driving force of the consumer society itself.
When you have an economic system which is predicated on the goal of growth as an end in itself, the only way to fuel it is by constantly creating new material needs and dependencies. Fetishised commodities carry an essence of that lost sense of fulfilment from one’s own labour, which is promised to be returned through the act of consumption. We are alienated not just from our own labour, but also from one another, as we are told to follow nothing but self-interest in a competitive marketplace. Hence we withdraw further and further into ourselves, alienated from our surroundings, our communities, as we pursue a solipsistic worldview as a means of survival, and surround ourselves with material possessions in the search for meaning, purpose and self-worth. The thing is, we are ultimately social creatures. The great journey our species has made through the ages of history has been purely due to our ability to build, work and live together, and although this psychopathically individualistic mindset is vital to the sustenance of consumer capitalism as a way of life, it is fundamentally incompatible with who we are as a species. The pressures that this sense of isolation and alienation cause can be devastating, as I know from personal experience all too well.
It’s just over four years since I moved back to London, arguably the very beating, bloody heart of the global capitalist system (if it had a heart) after having finished university in a very cushy small liberal arts college in the Netherlands. Although I had lived in London when I was younger, and had been constantly coming back to visit my father in the intervening years, moving back as an adult trying to enter the professional world was quite drastically different. From the moment you wake up, to the moment you go to sleep, you are constantly bombarded by screens, by moving images, by billboards telling you that your life just isn’t good enough. Your house? Not big enough. Your teeth? Not straight enough. Your investment portfolio? How many people even have fucking investment portfolios? If you do however, it’s not diversified enough. But hey, don’t worry, because if you get this app, or this dental floss, or this anthropomorphised rabbit as your financial consultant, then it’ll all be fine. Until you wake up the next morning of course, and realise that your life is still utterly hollow and meaningless, and you gravitate towards some other inanimate object to attain purpose from. This is a reality in most urban centres in the world by now probably, but in a metropolis like London, the Panopticon of consumerism and advertising is practically impossible to avoid as it bludgeons your sense of self-esteem into dust in order to sustain itself. In the face of this, many a times the only option has seemed for me to retreat into myself, into my own head, drowning it with drugs and alcohol and Netflix, which act as anaesthetics against the feelings of inadequacy and being overwhelmed constantly. What’s more, I know that this story is certainly not just my own — I’ve seen far too many of my peers driven to madness by this mad world, some institutionalised, and tragically some who didn’t make it. This crisis of mental health is more than just a psychological problem — it’s a spiritual sickness which took hold when capital assumed the place of god in our society, particularly over the last century. As humans we have an innate tendency to collectively construct narratives with which to derive meaning from an otherwise chaotic world, with which to embark on the society-building project. In a world as ever-changing as the one we live in today, and one in which the individual is worshiped above all else, those common narratives have all but disappeared, giving way to a vacuum where spiritual guidance is a highly sought-after commodity. It is no surprise then really, that in the last few months, once-obscure Canadian psychologist and YouTube ideologue Dr Jordan B. Peterson has emerged truly as the man of our times.
Having first gained notoriety for publicly opposing Canada’s Bill C-16, which added gender identity and expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination, particularly with the use of preferred pronouns for transgender people, his Channel 4 interview with a woefully underprepared Cathy Newman from earlier this year has shot him up to stratospheric levels of recognition and influence. At first glance, he is a rather serious man. His name is preceded by those two initials — D and R. This must mean that he speaks from a position of legitimate intellectual authority. What’s more, he’s a clinical psychologist, as he makes a point to assert on more than one occasion. This is comforting, particularly in an age when mental illness is increasingly the norm amongst young people. His latest book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has topped many bestseller lists, is also in many ways, the book of our times — a self-help book in the form of an expanded Buzzfeed-style clickbait listicle which aims to give you a sense of centring and order in an otherwise tumultuous world. The fatherly wisdom he imparts in the book ranges from the paternalistic (stand up with your shoulders straight, which is rule no. 1) to the obvious (make friends with people who want the best for you, rule no. 3) to the whimsical (pet a cat when you encounter it on the street, rule no. 12). On the surface the book is fairly innocuous, as it draws on many examples particularly from the animal kingdom from which to infer broad conclusions on the human experience, and aims to provide a path to find meaning, and there’s understandably an endless market for such material, from pop psychology to New Age spirituality. However, neatly packaged in with this material is a deeply reactionary worldview, one which basically sees human beings as nothing more than lumps of bone and flesh wired by instinct, and which ends up justifying the inequalities of society as some presupposed natural order of the world. He claims that the primary threat to this order is the ideology of those he terms as “Postmodern Neo-Marxists” (I mean technically, he may have a point there, if that were an actual thing) with their attempts to reverse the great Enlightenment project and its products, such as the rational self-interested individual, free speech, and so on. Ever since his meteoric rise to prominence in recent months, he has gained a faithful following, mostly among younger men, but across a wide range of political backgrounds, because his narrative is certainly an appealing one. It comforts this generation of lost young straight men that their natural place is at the top of a predicated hierarchy, and their way of reclaiming it is by getting in touch with their Jungian shadow, ultimately their psychopathic element in order to succeed.
The world Peterson inhabits, as he states, is a dark one, where danger is lurking around every corner, one where we are constantly engaged in some proto-evolutionary fight for survival, where unless we are willing to display our ability to be cruel, we are simply allowing others to do the same to us. It’s a world in which the civility between men is only maintained by the ever-present threat of physical violence, and women are agents of chaos. The thing is, not only is his understanding of both postmodernist theory, and the presupposed invidualism of human beings deeply flawed, but there is a great sense of irony, as John Ganz and Steven Klein write in their brilliant Baffler piece, in him appealing to return the tradition of the Enlightenment, which was itself a deeply anti-traditionalist movement. This is the least of many contradictions of the man that is Jordan B. Peterson, which also include having made a substantial income through YouTube and Patreon off using his free speech to complain about how the Postmodern Neo-Marxists (come to think of it, that could be a good name for an experimental noise-punk band) are silencing free speech. Ever since the Channel 4 interview, he has fully entered the media cycle of interviews, guest appearances and opinion thinkpieces. And yes, I’m aware that this article contributes to the same ecosystem. What’s troubling about his newfound celebrity, however, is that is shows the willingness of his audience to embrace some profoundly regressive worldviews as normative. For example, during his VICE interview, when discussing sexual misconduct in the workplace that has come to light particularly after #MeToo, his response is to ask if men and women can actually work together, and why women wear lipstick to work, if not to sexually provoke men. Not only does this feed into the narrative of victim blaming that has always perpetuated rape culture, but it’s also reflective of a certain entitled male attitude, that of an unflinching disregard for self-awareness or self-reflection. It’s definitely no coincidence that the combination of lifestyle advice and biotruth-driven misogyny in his work is almost exactly the same as what you would find on such bastions of neomasculinity as Reddit’s Red Pill community, or any number of pick-up artist forums online. His response to an increasingly unstable world, or “Liquid Modernity” as Zygmunt Bauman describes it, one where traditional institutions and structures such as masculinity are changing at a rate that is impossible to truly keep pace with, is to take solace from knowing his place in a supposedly natural system which is impermeable to change. If systems of inequality are conceived of as social outcomes, then they can be changed by changing the conditions that cause them, thus by presenting them as part of an essentialist natural order, he becomes the ultimate apologist for the status quo.
When talking about Alan Dershowitz, Noam Chomsky once wrote, “It may indeed be difficult ‘for some decent people to believe’ that Dershowitz actually exists, and is not simply invented by anti-Semites who want to ridicule supporters of Israel, ‘but the evidence is overwhelming’ that he really does exist.” Sometimes, when thinking of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, I too wonder similarly. Perhaps, much like the shadow he urges us to embrace, as with Elliot, the protagonist of Mr. Robot, he is just our collective projection of denial and repression. He is the creation of a society whose minds have collectively been placed under such duress from the demands of late stage capitalism, that the only way to cope has been to create a split personality, a father figure of sorts, an extension of our own subconscious, who will put us back on the straight and narrow as the fathers of the old institutions repeatedly failed us. But sadly, upon closer inspection, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that he does in fact exist.
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