Another (Communist) Planet
The Zeitgeist Movement and The Venus Project
James Marcus Tucker
In the Reagan era play, Other People’s Money by Jerry Sterner, a soulless banker destroys the livelihoods of thousands of men by buying up an ageing wire and cable manufacturing company on Long Island. Where the struggling, but determined company founder and owner sees history, tradition, family and livelihoods, the banker sees dollar bills. It is a timely (late 1980’s) warning about the social consequences of heartless capitalism. Or more to the point, the inhuman cost of the immoral monetary system. The banker, Lawrence “Larry the Liquidator” Garfield, even proudly states as much – claiming that he loves money, partly due to the fact that it doesn’t care what you do. Capitalism is a game, and if a few thousand people have to lose, then so be it. In a last ditch effort to save his own skin, the periled company’s manager goes behind the back of the company owner and tries to do a deal with Larry that would help him win the support of the shareholders and in return, secure himself a nice lump sum when the company collapses and he ultimately loses his job. He tells the audience guiltily, “everybody has to look after themselves”. Larry has no such guilt, he is a true Marxian style commodity fetishist. His mantra is “Make as much as you can. For as long as you can. Whoever has the most when he dies, WINS.” The big lesson however is that whilst Larry the Liquidator’s actions are morally dubious at best, it doesn’t mean of course, that he is acting illegally. Larry is acting within the system - albeit pushing it to its logical conclusion: human suffering.
It is easy to view Larry as a two-dimensional “bad guy” – a kind of pantomime villain. He is certainly portrayed as such. Yet, when we look to our recent financial crisis, and the current unpopularity of bankers on Wall Street and in the City, we can see that for many, such pantomime villains really do exist. It is easy to cry “wankers” at the men in suits, shuffling numbers around, producing nothing whilst making money off of money. It makes us feel better. They are, in Slavoj Žižek’sterm, a “toxic subject” to be scapegoated for society’s ills – you know, like immigrants, teenage mothers or anyone else the Daily Mail wishes to hate that particular day. But then, we must recognise, as we do with Larry the Liquidator that the bankers were simply working within a system and taking it to its logical conclusion. When money no longer represents true value and is no longer linked to resources, it can be made out of thin air and huge profits can be made from nothing. To keep the system safe, “state socialism-in-reverse” is administered in the form of a bail-out when the over inflated bubble bursts; a safety-net that the poorest in society could only dream about and the system creaks along, altered, bruised, but ultimately unchanged.
Beyond the paradigm?
Between 2007 and 2011, a series of films emerged on the internet which sought to envision a world that existed beyond the economic and social reality we find ourselves in. The documentary films, each produced by Peter Joseph, Zeitgeist(2007), Zeitgeist: Addendum (2008) and Zeitgeist: Moving Forward (2011) have spawned an internet based “activist movement” known as the Zeitgeist Movement and become internet phenomenons. The first film in particular for its controversial and much criticised (and debunked by counter arguments on YouTube videos) views on the historical validity of Christianity, its claim (made by many others also) that 9/11 was perpetrated not by radical Islamists, but by the US government, and it’s argument that the monetary system (particularly as seen in the US and it’s Federal Reserve) was a fraudulent system designed, like religion, to keep people separate, afraid and slavish. The sequels continue its investigation into the brokenness of the monetary system and offer a vision of an alternative system it calls a “resource based economy” focussed upon sustainability (something unimaginable in a profit driven, necessarily waste producing economy). The films draw on an American based organisation known as the Venus Project for its ideas of an alternative society. The Venus Project can best be described by quoting its Wikipedia page:
According to (Futurist Jacque Fresco), poverty, crime, corruption and war are the result of scarcity created by the present world’s profit-based economic system. He theorizes that the profit motive also stifles the progress of socially beneficial technology. Fresco claims that the progression of technology, if it were carried on independently of its profitability, would make more resources available to more people by producing an abundance of products and materials. This new-found abundance of resources would, according to Fresco, reduce the human tendency toward individualism, corruption, and greed, and instead rely on people helping each other.[i]
Zeitgeist: Moving Forward was released in January this year on DVD, in selected theatres and on the internet for free streaming and it is this film I wish to focus upon primarily in this essay. But it is important to at least consider the first filmZeitgeist in more detailbecause it is with this film that the movement became widespread and caught the attention of the world at large. It is perhaps a shame that Peter Joseph decided to create his first documentary in such an expository, propagandistic and agitprop manner. For the movement’s ultimate aim – that of persuading the world to rid itself of its unsustainable, unfair and poverty inducing system, is at risk of being forever tarnished by the first film’s questionable standards and practices of production. The film makes absolutely no recourse to even-handedness in its attack on the validity of Jesus’ existence. Instead of crafting an argument from scholarly sources or expert interviews, we hear Peter Joseph’s voice-over set to cartoon imagery illustrating the point he makes. The dots it tries to join are often strained in the extreme – for example, in trying to persuade us that the ancient worship of the Sun morphed itself into the worship of Jesus the “Son of God”, it tries to draw a homophonic link between “Son” and “Sun”. Yet this fails to take into account that this link could not be drawn in the original language of the Greeks or Hebrews. The very real questions which can, and should be raised about the validity to Biblical “truth” are washed away in sensational and easily attested claims, swift editing, pacey music and flashing graphics. As much as one may wish to agree with Peter Joseph, and find the film’s desire to make the viewer question assumed truths worthy of applause, it is impossible not to regret his methods and questionable source material. The claims it makes about 9/11 – primarily that international bankers were behind the terrorist attacks in New York to create fear and a social climate amenable to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are nothing new - the internet documentary film Loose Change and its reedits/sequels have made the same (watered down with each edit) claims since 2005. Again, the very real problems, mysteries and political scandals surrounding the events that day and in the following “War on Terror” years are ignored for sensational fear mongering about the hidden illuminate supposedly hell-bent on creating a one-world government.
A full blown dedication to conspiracy theory seems to be the first film’s prime intent. As with all conspiracy theories, it ultimately relies on the viewers desire to feel as if they are being let in on a secret – and is found in good company along with moon landings, JFK and aliens amongst us. For me, it is a shame because what Zeitgeist ends up being is so much more worthy than its conspiracy roots. Perhaps Peter Joseph was unaware at first that his film would be followed by more traditional forms of documentary story-telling in less conspiratorial sequels that would be more focussed on the monetary system and the Venus Project’s concepts. Or perhaps he was making his bold statements in the hope that people would be moved to anger by a general “man behind the curtain” threat, and thus more open to the idea that society was sick and needed to change. His thinking would seem to be: Destroy everything they think they know about the world (or at least major cultural parts of it), then they can be prepared to entertain an alternative.
By its third instalment, Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, Peter Joseph utilises a more interactive documentary approach – interviewing notable and accredited thinkers, including scientists (such as Robert Sapolsky from Stanford University), physicians, university professors and philosophers. His ultimate desire is yet again to persuade the viewer of something they may not have considered. But unlike the near impossible to verify claims found in the first film - such as Jesus’ twelve disciples not being human but representing the twelve signs of the zodiac - here Joseph has hard evidence and real examples to back up his claims. Right from the beginning, the system as we know it begins to crumble under Joseph’s findings.
Products of our environment
In an effort to show how human beings are not innately predetermined by their genes the film begins with scientist Robert Sapolsky describing the nature vs. nurture debate as a “false dichotomy.” He states that “it is virtually impossible to understand how biology works, outside the context of environment.” We are shown that it is neither nature nor nurture that shapes human behaviour but both are linked contributory factors. The interviewees’ state that even with genetic predispositions to diseases, the expression and manifestation of disease is largely determined by environmental stressors. One study discussed, showed that newly born babies are more likely to die if they are not touched and another posits that if babies are not subjected to light within the first few years of birth, their eyes will not develop the ability to see. Humans, it seems, are products of their environment. Environmentally, certain things must happen, and certain things shouldn’t, if a child is to develop healthily (physically and emotionally). If we develop within a world where resources are scarce, where inequality is high and our human dignity is not assumed – then criminal behaviour as a means to survive is endemic, social levels of health are lower and the standard of living as a whole is negatively affected.
To add more stress to this point (and to show these findings are not exclusive to handpicked scientists for the film), in a recent BBC TV lecture entitled Justice: Fairness and the Big Society, Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel highlighted how in countries such as Denmark and Germany, social mobility was higher than in countries such as the UK and in the USA that have less equal societies. It seemed as if higher levels of inequality within the system meant it was harder and less likely for people to move up and out of their lower income group (so much for the American Dream!) In similar findings, a section of Zeitgeist: Moving Forwardproduces graphs with a mean average line highlighting how in less equal societies, the health socioeconomic gradient becomes steeper – even in countries with universal healthcare. How can this be so? The simple and everyday reality of stress associated with poverty it seems, plays a large part in the health determination of an individual. But for society as a whole too, the findings presented from equalitytrust.org.uk are striking – graphs present steep gradients representing how in less equal societies, life expectancy decreases, drug abuse is higher, mental illness is more common, social capital (the ability of people to trust each other) is lower, average educational scores are lower, homicide rates are higher, rates of imprisonment are higher – the list of negatively affected symptoms goes on and on in less equal societies, including obesity and infant mortality.
The monetary system
Human inequality across the globe is seen as a product of the monetary system. Naomi Klein has already done some wonderful work exposing the hidden out-of-sight consequence of our branded consumer culture: slave-labour. But inZeitgeist: Moving Forward the human consequences of this inequality is highlighted by referencing the plight of AIDS victims in Africa and contrasting it with the relative wellness of people with HIV in the west who have a virtually normal life expectancy thanks to access to new anti-retroviral drugs. The problems are not born from the lack of available drugs, but by the system which demands a certain level of income to afford them. The film makes a stark claim, but one I agree with. It is not HIV that is killing over 1 million people a year in Africa – it is the socio-economic system which denies them treatment - plain and simple.
The idea that capitalism creates a balance through an “invisible hand of God” – in the words of philosopher and economist Adam Smith - is shown to be unrealistic. This idea that the market somehow, religiously causes equilibrium in fact makes the system, in effect, God itself. Joseph explains that the beginning of this system was at least based upon tangible goods - the supply and demand of desired material objects. From the film: “Adam Smith never fathomed that the most profitable economic sector on the planet would eventually be in the arena of financial trading – or so called ‘investment’ – where money itself is simply gained by the movement of other money, in an arbitrary game which holds zero productive merit to society”. In our society money is treated as a commodity in and of itself! Just ask Larry the Liquidator. This profit interest has separated from any form of life value. We use GDP as an indicator of health – but GDP is just a money sequence, an economic extraction – and has no connection to the reality of human happiness or need fulfilment. For example, in the USA, health care spending was 17.3% of GDP in 2009 ($2.5 trillion spent), creating a positive effect upon this economic measure – i.e. lots of services offered / money spent = higher GDP. But of course, what does spending on health care really represent but the money being spent on illness treatment? The USA’s GDP (market value of its entire goods and services) being so highly saturated with products to treat illness could not be seen, surely, as the sign of a healthy society.
Much time is spent discussing the flawed and arbitrary logic of the money supply, debt, inflation and interest. We are shown how there is no profit without problem solving – hence, no profit without problems. Crime (the private prison system), war (weapons trade) and sickness (health care) keep our economic system going along with consumption which is fundamentally wasteful and unsustainable. We are told that to make the most sustainable, efficient products would be mathematically impossible if the manufacturer is to be competitive. This reality can be seen by simply visiting the mountains of landfills spreading across the world. This wastefulness is not necessary however – most of the discarded material is primarily due to the breakdown of smaller parts within larger goods. For example, a chip inside your computer, a LED panel behind your TV etc. In an efficient conservative society where the world’s finite resources are considered, these parts could be fixed to extend the life of the good. However, Zeitgeist tells us that efficiency, sustainability and preservation are enemies of our economic system.
Along with this unsustainability, we are reminded how 18,000 children a day die from starvation, how global poverty rates have doubled since the 1970s and that the top 1% own more than 40% of the planet’s wealth.
Simply, the Venus Project. Unfortunately, Zeitgeist offers us no idea on how we can attain this new earth. We are told that a moneyless society built with sustainability, technology and human equality in mind could rise from the ground up, if we were beginning anew. But as to how we create it after thousands of years of civilization, we are left clueless. What this new earth looks like, however, is quite specific – from the types of technology we use to the methods of power production, farming and the shape and layout of the city. The computer created designs show sci-fi looking buildings surrounded by acres of green space, all neatly and cleanly laid – there is not a hair out of place, a dish left to be washed!
In the Venus Project’s civilization, such social problems created by money and inequality do not materialise. In answer to the cynics concern over jobs – well, as most jobs would be obsolete as technology overtakes, most people will not need jobs. The jobs that remain necessary will be filled by volunteers because such jobs will be essential to the continuation of a society that works so well for all people. It does sound a little unrealistic, goes the objection. What about simply lazy people? Again, Zeitgeist: Moving Forward informs us, laziness is environmental – not innate. Just like inequality, it is a product of our current system, and it is easy to understand this point. In a system that leaves people behind, and one finds oneself with scarce options (for example, sitting on the couch or working at McDonald’s 12 hours a day for minimum wage), laziness becomes a very real, very appealing option. The motivation to do something does not reside with profit alone. To anchor this point, Joseph reminds us that children are probably the most active and inquisitive of humans. They are not motivated by money, greedy or lazy. The need to make money as adults takes over from this desire to create, and we become slaves to the profit drive.
In regards to profit motive, some interesting information has become available from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. A study held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave a group of students a set of challenges – memorising, word puzzles, spatial puzzles etc. Students were incentivised with different rewards - being offered low, through medium, to high monetary amounts for success. Contrary to all expected outcomes, where the task demanded even the smallest amount of cognitive skill, the promise of a larger reward led to poorer performance. The research was funded by the Federal Reserve Bank, so could not have been expected (by cynics) to be biased towards an anti-profit outcome. This test has been duplicated numerous times using higher levels of rewards – such as with workers in rural India – with the same outcome. Money, it seems, is not the incentive we have so easily assumed it is. But even more, when a task requires complicated and creative conceptual thinking, large monetary incentives actually reduce the capacity for people to succeed. When money is taken out of the equation, so that people are concentrating on the work itself, and not on the money they will achieve from the task, challenge and mastery, along with the desire to make a contribution are the reasons people seem to continually behave outside of economic expectations of human behaviour.[ii]
The point Zeitgeist: Moving Forward makes, and makes incredibly well is that everything we think we know about humans is because as humans, we exist in THIS system. Every problem thrown up against the idea that we can work together for a common good relies on examples from human behaviour in THIS system. If a totally reworked system was to magically appear when we wake up tomorrow, I have every confidence that so many of the worlds ills could be wiped away, that human laziness could be replaced with a moneyless and profit exempt desire to work. But how do we get there? What physical and social revolution needs to happen, and who do we have to persuade in order to change it?
The subtitle of the final film “Moving Forward” is perhaps misinforming. The second film in the trilogy Zeitgeist: Addendum, like its successor, detailed the catastrophic and unsustainable monetary system, and highlighted the merits of the Venus Project. I saw it at a screening in Brighton not long after its release. The experience was enlightening primarily because of the arguments it raised in the post-screening discussion. It seemed the (largely academic and left-leaning) audience were onside with the films general premise and sharing in the anger from its attack on the monetary system, its revelation about the USA’s economically driven involvement in South American coups and calls for certain product boycotts, but were at odds over the merits and realities of the Venus Project. So it was with excitement I viewed the very promising “Moving Forward” finale. I was expecting, perhaps, a how-to approach for transformation. Instead, we get more information on the ills of the current system, and the perceived merits of the Venus Project - notably, to the exclusion of other ideas or projects. The Venus Project’s own website does go into more detail, however, about how such a society can be realised, and the steps they are taking already to experiment with their ideas.
I did appreciate the second film’s commitment to the concept of interdependence. The film perceived the Earth as a singular living organism and, like the first film, played to the audience’s emotions by asking us to consider the human being as a part of the whole, distracted by dimensional distinctions (religion, politics, race, wealth etc.) above our common, universal concerns as humans. This idea was beautifully highlighted for me in a segment of the Canadian documentary film Examined Life (2008) by Astra Taylor. Philosopher Judith Butler walks through the streets of San Francisco with disability activist and painter Sunaura Taylor discussing disability. They decide to go into a clothing store where Taylor, physically handicapped, navigates her way through the physical actions of trying on and buying a sweater. Afterwards, Butler raises the very point that “help” – often looked down upon in our individualistic society – is something we all need, considered disabled or not. We are an interdependent species that cannot exist without the “help” or abilities of others. Butler asks rhetorically “Do we or do we not live in a world where we help each other…assist each other with basic needs?” Zeitgeist would argue the case that under the current system, the answer is no – or at least not if it’s to the detriment of that system.
Zeitgeist: Moving Forward takes great pains to argue that it exists beyond the current political paradigm. They say the future it proposes goes beyond left or right. But here is Karl Marx in The German Ideology (1845):
“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
If the paradigm it aims to raise beyond is the historically dominant polarity, then its claim is technically correct. Yet one feels that Joseph does protest too much. Zeitgeist, perhaps unknowingly, is waving the little red book for pure Communism – a stateless, classless society where people exist free from alienations and inequality. To quote from Alain Badiou’sCommunist Hypothesis:
“‘Communist’ means, first, that the logic of class…is not inevitable; it can be overcome…a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.” [iii]
Perhaps in Joseph’s desire to escape the trappings of the (incorrect) label “socialist” (nothing less than an insult in his homeland) he denies the roots of his film’s ideology. These roots can be found neither in the realm of totalitarian Statism in any of its various historical guises (Leninism, Maoism, Stalinism etc), nor socialism, which, to quote Negri, is “nothing other than one of the forms taken by capitalist management of the economy and of power”[iv]. It is however a form of (arguably) unrealised Communism as Marx envisaged, whether Joseph likes it or not. It was the idea of Communism after all, that saw the withering away of the State. The role the State has to play in the transition towards such a society from the standpoint of capitalism has been, of course, contestedand fought over by thinkers engaged in emancipatory politics since Marx, and this battle ground is probably not one thatZeitgeist wishes to engage its populist audience with. With such “leftist” associations, the historical roots of the Venus Project and Zeitgeist movement could never be admitted if the ideas that drive them are to be palatable for a western (and specifically American) audience. The Venus Project andZeitgeist do indeed reach for an alternative to so much of our ancestors (and our own) lived social experience – but it does so mostly by repackaging and rebranding an old, failed to (yet) materialise idea for the 21st Century.
Whether successful in fermenting a realised revolution or not, we can at least be thankful for The Venus Project, this movement and its documentaries’ existence. They remain, for now, as ideas and possibilities. As we have seen with the revolutions and civil unrest in the Arab world recently, the internet as a tool for social consciousness, awareness and activism is enabling information and ideas to be shared at a rate impossible to have comprehended even 10 years ago. Zeitgeist rests, for the moment within this sphere – consciousness-raising.
I was discussing The Venus Project with my boyfriend in public yesterday, and somebody nearby looked up and said “The Venus Project? Oh yes I saw it on Zeitgeist…but it wouldn’t work. Without prisons or laws, what do you do with bad people?” It was interesting to recognise how such views on human nature and defeatist attitudes on the path to human emancipation can stop people before they even begin to dream. So in response I wish to quote Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the aforementioned RSA. In his speech entitled21st Century Enlightenment, he says “Creative people who want to make a difference have a million and one opportunities and distractions. To engage them means an ethic that is intolerant to negativity, rigid thinking and self promotion, and instead keeps them constantly in touch with the words of the anthropologist Margaret Mead – never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
For more information on the Zeitgeist Movement and the three films, see www.zeitgeistmovie.com
[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Venus_Project, Sourced 16-03-2011
[ii] Findings from the The RSA.org See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc&sns=tw
[iii] Badiou, A., The Communist Hypothesis, http://newleftreview.org/?view=2705
[iv] Negri, A., and Guattari, F., Communists like Us, Autonomedia, 1985, Page 167