The festive season, now behind us, can be either the best time of the year or an incredible drag, depending on who you ask. Everything about it — long family dinners, gift-giving, decorations, fireworks — can be a source of joy or vexation. But what cannot be denied is that there is a palpable shift in the atmosphere. People relate to each other differently. Strangers greet you in the street, wishing you a merry Christmas. Everyone tries their hardest to be “nice”. This aspect of Christmas has been explored and eulogized ad infinitum. But underlying it is a sentiment that is harder to capture in words.
Between moments of conviviality — whether genuine or forced — we catch ourselves in a more philosophical mood. We reflect on the past and look to the future. We draw up a balance sheet, and usually find a negative figure at the bottom of the page. We imagine what it would be like if our lives took a sudden turn. For a moment, we allow ourselves to dream. And with the new year in the offing, our dreams acquire a shape and a reality. A feeling rises in our chest, faint at first but swelling, until it overflows into the world around us, which is subtly transfigured. We’re pulsating with a sense of renewal and possibility.
This feeling of regeneration is at bottom a religious one. It is framed on one side by the desire for redemption, on the other by the prospect of heaven. In other words, it is oriented towards the past and the future at once. There’s a kind of joyous anticipation in the thought of realizing our goals. On the other hand, our present bid is motivated by past failures. It’s the idea of making good on those failures that inspires us. As Walter Benjamin noted, “the idea of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the idea of redemption”. But what would it mean to redeem the past?
According to Benjamin, it wouldn’t be like ticking off the items on your bucket list one by one. To redeem the past, he thought, would be to overcome it, to be able to contemplate it in all its aspects, without regret and without feeling the need to tie up loose ends. This wasn’t something that could be achieved through gradual improvements, he thought. It required not piecemeal reforms but a revolutionary break, which he construed in messianic terms. The Messiah negates time and inaugurates a new time, from which standpoint history appears in an entirely new light. Think of a man condemned to death who, at the moment of his execution, learns of his reprieve, as in Jean-Paul Sartre’s story “The Wall”. He feels not just relieved but reborn — a wholly new person. He relates to his past as if it were someone else’s.
This feeling, with its roots in religious conversion and eschatology, has been secularized, and consequently watered down. But something of it persists in, for instance, the tradition of New Year’s resolutions, when people the world over set themselves ambitious goals and make a fresh start — not because they believe they will be saved in the next life but because they think they can improve their conditions in this one. They aren’t given a second chance; they take it. Such experiences are fairly common. They’re sometimes described as acts of “taking back control”. Think of someone leaving an abusive relationship or kicking a drug habit, or doing something as dull as cleaning their room.
“Clean up your room” — this was Jordan Peterson’s advice for millennials. If they wanted to regain a sense of agency over their lives, he suggested, they should begin by taking charge of the small area of life they controlled. Assuming the role of the firm-but-fair father, he urged millennials to take responsibility, speak the truth regardless of the consequences, will the good, avoid evil, and so on. Much of Peterson’s advice was based on the common sense of a previous era, but for a generation that had been deprived of it, it was eye-opening. Importantly, Peterson did not tell them what the true and the good consisted in. He merely told them to pay attention to their feelings. “When you’re speaking properly, you will experience a feeling of integration and strength, and when you’re speaking in a deceitful or manipulative manner, you’ll feel that you’re starting to come apart at the seams”.
Peterson wasn’t just peddling a form of self-help based on the insights of humanistic psychology; he thought of his project as a social intervention. His message was simple: if you want to change the world, you have to be able to look after yourself first. The left — those nominally invested in changing the world — received Peterson’s message with hostility, maybe because it’s afraid of strong individuals, lest they cause “harm” or oppress others. But also because it rejected Peterson’s optimism. The left doesn’t believe in new beginnings. In Sartre’s story, the condemned man is released because he accidentally gives his interrogator the address of his friend, who is executed in his place. In the left’s understanding of history, there is no redemption and progress is a zero-sum game. This tells us that there is no left, that the left is dead.
The belief in the possibility of a new society was once the bedrock of the political left. This required strong individuals who took responsibility for their actions. More importantly, it required a movement which took responsibility for society, and all the problems it faced. The purpose of this movement was not to fight for the interests of its members, but to embody the truth of society, its attempt to live up to its own ideal of freedom. Following Jonathan Haidt, Peterson argued that the contemporary left forces people and institutions into a choice between truth and social justice. Haidt and Peterson were right, and by framing the issue as a battle between truth and justice, they clarified why so many people feel repulsed by the left: it lies.
The problem is not so much that the left wants freedom but is itself authoritarian, that it wants a society free from racism but is itself racist, that it wants sexual liberation but relentlessly polices people’s sexuality, or that it wants to sweep away gender norms but only by imposing new norms. On a more fundamental level, the problem is the lie it tells about society: that there can be “justice” in the absence of a struggle for universal emancipation. As it stands, “social justice” is no more than a racket pitting different sections of society against each other for private gain. In choosing “justice” over truth, the left inevitably ends up on the side of the status quo.
The left ought not to be on the side of justice but of truth. It should unequivocally endorse Peterson’s project to cultivate responsibility and independence of mind in young people. It is only by working through these challenges — the challenges of becoming a responsible adult — that the true magnitude of the problem — its social dimension — becomes palpable. For instance, Peterson advises millennials to always tell the truth. But this means, as he blithely points out, that if “you have to lie to maintain your job”, you should quit. This is where Peterson’s politics of personal responsibility runs into trouble — and might give way to a more radical alternative.
In the coming days, many of us will perform the equivalent of a mental cleaning operation. We will clear our heads and clean our rooms. We will take a moment to look back and to look ahead. We will take stock of the past and evaluate our possibilities for the future. We will want to make amends to ourselves and to others. We will certainly promise ourselves to do better this year. And we know this is more than a vain hope. We know it because we feel within ourselves an energy and a potential that is impossible to contain.
But we also know that this feeling will fade. After all, this “new beginning” is only a trick played by the calendar. Even as we’re progressing towards our goals — while we still remember them — the feeling of success is tinged with regret at the memory of past failures. By the end of January, a pall has come down over us, and things have settled in their ordinary, grey routine.
What would it mean to hold on to this feeling, not just individually but as a collective? To refuse to be bullied into conformity by the past, even though it weighs us down with the memory of accumulated failure and defeat? What would it mean to refuse to go back to the drab routine of the status quo ante? One thing is certain: the left must get its house in order. If it does, it may be rewarded with that swelling feeling, and want more of it.