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Jordan Peterson’s appeal? He fills the hole out of which young men like me have clambered

The 55-year-old has gone from practising psychologist to internet sensation at a time when masculinity is up for grabs.

In recent weeks, I have become mesmerised by a clinical psychologist who is the darling of the alt-right. That is not a sentence I ever thought I’d have cause to write, but Jordan Peterson is something else.

I had seen some of his lectures before that notorious interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News in January, the one that gave him particular notoriety in the UK for his comments on the gender pay gap. As Stephen Bush wrote last week, Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is at base a self-help guide, and like every other contribution to that bloated canon contains a mixture of the persuasive and self-evident.

His gentle, erudite embrace of Christianity, and thumping dismissals of the hard left have made him beloved of Trump fans, but he has other attributes that might be considered attractive. One is sheer magnetism. The first time I saw him on screen, I thought it was Jeremy Irons; he is charismatic and exceptionally articulate. And if there is something masterful about him, it comes from a formula similar to Matthew Arnold’s: “For the creation of a masterwork of literature, two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment.”

Jordan Peterson’s genius is one of timing. This 55-year-old has gone from practising psychologist to internet sensation at a time when masculinity is up for grabs. This is mostly the result of beneficial social changes that have jumbled social roles, including the rapid rise in the female proportion of the modern workforce.

Another change relates to the consequences of liberalism. After the vanquishing of rival totalitarianisms in the 20th century, a victor emerged on the ideological battlefield, and this was the idea that, so long as nobody is harmed, we should be free to do as we please.

Naturally, many societies signed up to this admirable principle, but it made us uneasy about the idea that life should be lived a certain way and, by extension, that some lives were nobler than others. The loosening grip of religion in some parts of the West accelerated this flight away from prescriptions for how to live well.

I have often thought what a shame it was that John Stuart Mill’s greatest work was so misnamed. On Liberty wasn’t principally about liberty; in fact it was chiefly about the higher principles that lead to human flourishing, or what Aristotle called eudaemonia. Liberty, for Mill, was a means to an end, not an end in itself. He wrote of experiments in living. For Aristotle, living in accordance with the virtues were what led to arete, or excellence of character.

As for Mill and Aristotle, so for Peterson. His work is also predicated on the notion that some lives are better than others, and it comes at a time when liberalism has retreated from the recommendations for how to live that Christianity and other faiths were comfortable with.

It also coincides with men staying children for longer. Since 1971, the average age at which British men get married has risen from 24.6 to 32.7 years, and from 22.6 to 30.8 years for women. In a generation we have added a whole new chapter to our lives. Economics explains some of it: lucrative jobs are scarcer; student debt is a swelling burden; it can take two salaries to get a mortgage. But it’s also driven by culture: a belief that one’s twenties should be a decade of experimentation (perhaps Mill would have approved) – in careers, living arrangements, and partners. Where some locate the resonance of Peterson’s life lessons in the collapse of the traditional family, or the retreat from a stiffer conception of fatherhood, I think this new period in young men’s lives has much to do with it.

I am 34. For more than a decade, my mates and I enjoyed a youthful freedom – maybe excessively so. It didn’t always make us happy. In fact, the softening attachments of family or the pleasure in devotion to a meaningful career that have come years after we abandoned raving and all-night benders have provided a purpose that liberalism’s victory in the 20th century had little to do with.

Peterson is a new kind of public intellectual, using YouTube to spread ideas infinitely wider than predecessors such as Bertrand Russell or Isaiah Berlin. But “the moment” is all. He’s filling the hole out of which my generation has just clambered. His essential message that men should grow up is a way of saying, it’s cool to be free – but to what end? 

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.