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Jordan Peterson gets it wrong on inequality

By Tristan Ewins - posted Thursday, 4 July 2019

Canadian Public Intellectual, Jordan Peterson has made another intervention. He argues against what he calls 'equity politics' as opposed to what passes for 'equality of opportunity' in Western societies. For his own purposes he defines 'equality' as 'equality under the law' and 'meritocracy' as far as it has progressed in Western society - to which we could also add free, universal and equal suffrage amongst whose most early ardent advocates were socialists.

By contrast 'equity' is argued as inferring 'equality of outcome' and for some the goal is even role reversal.

Because the main focus on the Left these days appears to be gender, Peterson focuses on gender also. Along the way he makes some interesting points.


Amongst the 'interesting' points:

  • Only a tiny proportion of men actually occupy positions in the 'ruling class'
  • Corporate Affirmative Action in Sweden has had almost no impact on the prospects and lives of working class women.
  • 'Equity' can be interpreted as 'sameness' - but men and women may not freely choose to be 'the same' if given the choice.
  • Some women accept a 'trade off' of free time for lower incomes and that is an acceptable choice.
  • Further, providing OPPORTUNITY doesn't mean women will take those opportunities and old patterns in the labour market may be replicated here and there even after significant efforts to 'open the way'. For example, Peterson mentions Mathematicians, Engineers, Physicists.

'Sameness' is not the same as 'equality' or 'justice'.

But in response:-  it is legitimate to break down barriers to women's (and men's) participation in non-traditional realms without creating new stereotypes, disincentives and barriers for either sex.

Peterson argues that 'the Equity Doctrine …. has gone too far'. He seems to assume that 'Western meritocracy' is the best system and that, in fact extreme, inequality is functional to the creation of prosperity.

But many Socialists themselves have assumed 'perfect equality' is unachievable and undesirable, even under socialism at least until 'absolute abundance' is achieved - though given the relative nature of prosperity that might be a long way off.

Social Democratic Marxists Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein variously made that point that for the foreseeable future there would remain differences of remuneration based on skill, effort, and the undesirable and unpleasant nature of some labour.


Whatever you think of 'communism in practice' the ultimate theoretical 'communist goal' assumes free and non-alienated labour; a state where there is abundance, and diverse and fulfilling labour has become 'life's prime want'. This principle can inform policy today, but without true abundance it cannot be fully realised.

There are other questions as well: for example the 'coercive laws of competition' as they apply, not only to enterprises, but also to nation-states. Competition can drive less desirable labour and social conditions and the resultant economic forces mitigate against the retreat of alienating human labour.

Further, the welfare state itself demands an economic base and, as the Swedes showed, this was best supported by policies ensuring full employment.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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