The Communism of “Zeitgeist”: Science or Science Fiction

Hardly noticed in Europe and by the Left worldwide, a new social movement emerged in the US a couple of years ago. It globalizes itself quickly. New is not its programme, but the way it attracts people. I am talking about Zeitgeist, which receives a growing attention mainly due to the movies made by Peter Joseph. His newest is online now: Moving forward is its title. The message of Moving forward is quite simple: no money, no exchange, no capital, no state. To put it in one word: Communism.

Isn’t that quite astonishing? Amidst the terminal crisis of capitalism and the upcoming reorganization of elites to prolong their domination, without any visible movement that tries to reach beyond, people suddenly begin a debate on how to end “this shit” (Jacques Fresco) by abolishing the absurd and deadly system of markets and states.

The movie ends with pictures of a world revolution, with people throwing away their money, confronting the force of the state in peaceful demonstrations, and a political and economic elitethat simply capitulates. To good to be true, but good indeed it is.

Radical critique

The truth of the movie does not lie so much in the way it describes an alternative, but in its radical and relentless critique of capitalist life. The best moments of the three hour opus magnum of Peter Joseph are where he unmasks the unbelieveble absurdities of commodity production and consumption, of products, that are sold and are only produced to be sold – at a profit. This is done with ease and irony.

When Joseph exposes the irrationality of what he calls the “monetary system” and which mainly consists in the movement of interest-bearing capital – the “most externalised and most fetish-like form of capital (Marx) – the monetary system appears as what it is: not the culprit of the misery of our times, but simply an extension of the deadly absurdity that consists in exchange. The conclusion: it’s the system, stupid. This is also the clearest possible demarcation against any kind of conspirancy theory and its almost inevitable allusions to antisemitism. Allusions that are an increasing danger for any liberating social movement as the crisis deepens and people cling to the status quo of market, wage labour, state intervention and capital.

Certainly, what appears so outrageously new to many did not fall from heaven but has roots in history. The new  Zeitgeist-movie propagates a communism in its best sense, and without even mentioning Marx – be it because of tactical reasons, be it because of a kind of narrow-mindedness (which does not hurt as long as the message stays clear). Besides the mindset of the Cold War and the repression of communist movements in the US, experiences, which are still vivid, it is to blame on so-called communists who only promote variants of the existing society and deem radical to call for a nationalization of banks or full employment, that evident alliances have not yet been forged.

“Infantile disorders” of Zeitgeist

The weaknesses of the Zeitgeist approach are firstly the blindness towards production and secondly its dangerous affirmation of science as a mere reflection of an allegedly objective reality.

That people are not only consumers, but also workers at home, in the factory, at the office, that they are jobless or peasants producing their subsistence is not part of the story the movie tells. This does not only fit quite well into the bourgeois view of the world, that only knows consumers and households, and which is deconstructed so ruthlessly in many other parts of Moving forward, but it also blocks an explanation of how people can really transcend capitalism. An alternative is not created on the desktop of engineers, but in the hearts of people and above all in a concrete transformation of social relations: at the workplace, at home and in the streets, i.e. in the production and reproduction of society. On this issue Zeitgeist has not much to say- thus the peculiar gap between Frescos circular cities, that remind us of Stanislaw Lems city landscape in Transfer or a scenery in Star Trek on the one hand, and the lucid (although market-fixed) critique of capital.

In an interview section in Moving forward, Jacques Fresco says that all people are “victims of culture“. Yes, we are all victims in some sort or theother. Yet, we are not bound to be victims, but interpret and reproduce orchange our social interactions constantly. This is done mainly in constant social struggles on all levels, from the household to the office. Demonstrations are only a minor part of all those struggles – and even a rather superficial and often quite helpless one. So, we are not only victims, but at the same time people that resist domination, fight back and create spaces of freedom. Otherwise it would be a complete mystery why people such as Peter Joseph or Jacques Fresco can ever escape the position of a victim.

The patriarchal authority of science

The blindness on the eye of production leads Moving forward also to a nearly complete ignorance towards the relation between genders and the importance of feminized work at the household and in “mothering” (a term Genevieve Vaughan has coined) for the market system. This fits all to well into an affirmative view of science that seems to hold the solution to all problems. A view, that the movie itself embodies, since practically all people that are interviewed have academic titles – and are all male (with one exception) and seemingly endowed with some sort of superior knowledge. It is as much astonishing as dangerous to think that anything like absolute and universal truth exists “out there” and that this truth is the business of people called “experts” and “scientists”.

While it is true, that technical problems of how to organize production are not to be solved in  political terms – there is indeed no republican or liberal car – it is quite false to think of one solution for all and to imagine any technology as being neutral. This isn’t true for atomic bombs, and it isn’t true for computers. It seems that Zeitgeist wants to replace the absolutist authority of the state – which it correctly critizes – with another absolutist authority: that of science, the domination of an allegedly universal, neutral, and objective reason, mediated by similarly neutral, objective and – of course – well-meaning scientists.

In the realist view, that Zeitgeist regrettably promotes, science is seen as a reflection of reality – this is certainly false. Reality is a construction, and this construction is done by different means, including everyday language and culture, modern and traditional, Western and Eastern science.

While it is clear that oil is finite and we can’t run through a wall, the terms in which we explain this peculiar resistance of the “outer world” to our goals are variable, flexible, depend on cultural predispositions and assumptions – they are anything else than absolute. We cannot even say, why the simplest solution to any scientific problem (as the commonly accepted principle of “Occam’s Razor” requires) is also the “true solution”, has more to do with “external reality” as a more complicated explanation. And to give universal and transhistorical criteria for what is “simple” in a scientific sense will also prove to be hardly feasible.

The praise of science makes one chilling, when some of the interviewees shortly speak about the question of population and an assumed collusion with a so called carrying capacity. As a matter of fact, world population will most probably peak at 9 billion around 2050. And it is subject to – yes, what a surprise – scientific controversy and ideological battles as a part of class struggle, wether 9 billion people can lead a good life or billions are expected to vanish by way of catastrophes due to some sort of an alleged overshoot.

The false promises of technology

Hence it seems that Zeitgeist rescues the original idea of communism – “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (Marx) – while perpetuating one of its great mistakes: that the organization of production and distribution is a mere technical question for which a universal scientific solution exists. This mistake had its heyday in the interwar period. And it is not by chance that there also are the historical roots of the Zeitgeist-movement, which is an offspring of the so called technocratic movement that took (and takes) Frederick Engels saying that if suffices to replace the domination of people over people by the administration of things at face value.

The final, visionary part of the movie makes clear, that the satisfaction of human needs does not fail due to a lack of technological means (indeed, this was probably never the case in human history, since needs are shaped by technology as well as the other way round). This is certainly true. Yet it is false to promoting the one universal solution of a utopia of technophile administrators, consisting of a global system of managementof resources, of production, and distribution. The fact that human needs are to some extent universal does not imply that the ways these needs are satisfied, interpreted and deployed converge on one and the same global path of societal development.

Global cooperation might be useful, even partly necessary. But it cannot and should not rely on people functioning like machines, obeying the allegedly natural constraint of resource management which might be enforced by a  scientific steering comitee – the movie interestingly enough is completely silent on such things as decision making and control of decision making institutions.

Jacques Frescos vision of a perfectly “clean and efficient” way of living and producing in circular cities dangerously resembles what James Scott called “high-modernist schemes“, which, according to his book Seeing likea state, “failed to improve the human condition“. At this point, Fresco appears to be an anachronist variant of Le Corbusier. While Le Corbusier loved right angles, Fresco adores the circle. Well, a matter of taste, not of emancipation, isn’t it. As long as the Corbusiers and Frescos of this world do not compel anyone to adopt their visions and suffer their consequences, this might be okay. (Brasilía, which was built according to Corbusiers ideology turned out to be a very unfriendly place that exists only because itis supported by informal life and unplanned outskirts.) Yet, to make the great solution out of it is simply wrong and potentially authoritarian.

The real movement

These critiqual remarks should not diminish the great achievement of themovie: to be the first formulation of a truly communist programme in termsthat are accessible to a broad audience. Yet we must hope that thisaudience stops being an audience and begins to make, what communism ismeant to be: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state ofthings. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence” (Marx/Engels).

What those premises precisely are, we should clearly take a much closer and much more controversial look at than the movie does.

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9 Responses to The Communism of “Zeitgeist”: Science or Science Fiction

  1. João Paulo Marques Matos says:

    you are telling lies. research then talk. maybe you don’t have time, right? off course none of us have it.. guess why?…
    please give them more of your time and extend your research.
    it is not communism: they don’t like it too.
    it’s not just science: it’s science with some guides.
    it’s not socialism: it’s equality.
    it’s not democracy: it’s participation.

  2. Xaph says:

    @Mismo, he probably can’t view the forum, as he’d need to pass a test, which he has not passed yet, looking at how he formulate his review.

    @Andreas Exner
    Marx et al. advocated a lot of things. But that was over 100 years ago in an environment different to today. From the venus project FAQ:

    “Although Marx was a brilliant man for his time, he did not foresee the methods and advantages of a high-tech resource-based economy. Communism used money and labor, had social stratification, and elected officials to maintain the communists’ traditions. Most importantly, Communism did not eliminate SCARCITY nor did they have a blueprint or the methods for the production of abundance. Machine production rather than labor will dominate the future. Perhaps through no fault of their own, they also had to maintain huge military expenditures to protect themselves from invasion of fascistic and capitalistic institutions.

    Communism being similar to a resource-based economy or The Venus Project is an erroneous concept. Communism has money, banks, armies, police, prisons, charismatic personalities, social stratification, and is managed by appointed leaders. The Venus Project’s aim is to surpass the need for the use of money. Police, prisons and the military would no longer be necessary when goods, services, healthcare, and education are available to all people. The Venus Project would replace politicians with a cybernated society in which all of the physical entities are managed and operated by computerized systems. The only region that the computers do not operate or manage is the surveillance of human beings. This would be completely unnecessary and considered socially offensive. A society that uses technology without human concern has no basis of survival. Communism has no blueprint or methodology to carry out their ideals and along with capitalism, fascism, and socialism, will ultimately go down in history as failed social experiments. [...]

    While communism is a much more humane social system than what we have today, we feel it does differ considerably from the direction we advocate. While Marx offered a bold new direction in his time, it falls far short of what can be accomplished with today’s technology applied with human and environmental concern. [...]

    The Venus Project offers science and technology in the service of humankind on a global scale and eventually helps to eliminate all the artificial boundaries that separate people. The system uses no money and makes goods and services available without a price tag, debt, barter, or servitude of any kind. If we use our technology intelligently, we can create an abundance of goods and services for the entire planet. We use machines and automation to produce and distribute all manufactured products, which will be available at distribution centers to everyone. The purpose of this high technology is to free people so they can pursue their own interests and fulfillments. [...]

    We would surpass the need for human participation in the production of goods and services. There is no taxation or obligation of any kind. We advocate no government by human systems. They have always proved inadequate. Computerized systems and cybernetics would be applied to the social system and must comply with the carrying capacity of our global resources. The machines’ main purpose is for the manufacturing and distribution of goods and services while maintaining a clean environment with service to all and profits to none. When people have access to resources, most crimes will disappear. The need for police, military, and prisons will eventually vanish with it. Of course this will coincide with the necessary changes in education. I hope this helps to clarify some points. We realize this is a simplified description of how it differs from communism.”

    I would suggest reading “the tyranny of words” by Stuart Chase (here’s a .doc version: http://www.zshare.net/download/8471607305ef0bd2/), which deals with problematic words including ‘communism’.

    And for how the transition to a RBE is dealt with. In short, the transition will be highly chaotic, so nobody knows exactly how things will go down. We can make educated guesses. The only thing that is clear is that the transition begins with the education of this direction. The more people that are agreeable to this idea, the more straightforwared the transition will be.

    At least the reviewer was devoid of general emotional arguments and the like.

  3. Pedro says:

    Oh, I’ve seen this before. Trying by any means relate a Resource-based Economy with communism while ignoring the base methodology for economizing goods. Because “communism” is a really loaded word, highly demonized, if you somehow relate some idea to it, that idea if easily dismissible by great amount of people.
    I just want to recall the definition of a RBE: “The scientific method APPLIED to human concern”

  4. robin says:

    Zeitgeist is really more dangerous than what we think, and justifying it as this article does is a dangerous step. Just refound a new identity, zeitgeist/ Venus Project disciples never learned how to think for themselves. And if they did, they left.

    * http://anticultist.wordpress.com/
    * http://www.tabletmag.com/news-and-politics/57732/brave-new-world/
    * http://thezeitgeistmovements.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/zeitgeist-moving-forward-review/

  5. @xaph: communism is a social order without money and state power. so your argument does not apply. you relate to the dictatorship of a party that called itself “communist” (and murdered thousends of communists without regret) – that’s a different thing. for tactical reasons you can use other words for the same thing, no problem with that.

    @robin: zeitgeist movement is ambivalent, the movie is an achievement in so far as a critique of the current society is intendend that can be understood by a broader audience. i hope that the movement will learn to enrich its perspective, clearly demarcate itself against rightwing currents (i know that “zeitgeist” claims to be beyond left and right, but that is wishful thinking) and takes a more critical stance on “science”. it must learn that conflicts are not bad per se. and that conflicts in the current society are structurally determined (wage labour against capital is just a case in point) and cannot be “harmonized” away by wishful thinking.

  6. this is the wider context of my weblog-entry that was written for a mailing list we set up: http://p2pfoundation.net/De-Monetization

    a weblog on demonetization will be ready soon under http://demonetize.it

  7. Jessie says:

    I see from these comments Zietgeists have had their brains wishy washied away. Not a single one of them knows what communism is an assumes someone who does is a simple biggot. I am especially glad to see the only sources to refute it’s not communism all comes from the Zeitgiest website of some kind or another. how ever so convinent that not one historian or educated person could support this, except a bunch of 15-24 year old kids who seem to “Know The Answer To Humanity’s Problems”. I especially love the “We Just Have To Change The Way People Think” line, because surely Joesph Stalin or Aldof Hitler never said that.

    Certainly Communism never produced a massive wave of documentaries to brainwash the masses into commiting themselves into slavery. They used propaganda films which are completely and totally different. Sure we dont need social classes, we’ll just get rid of everyone not on board with this “Recource Based Economy” and send them to the gulag.

  8. Btown ztrip says:

    I thought this article was well articulated. To put one of the writers points more simply, in the global governance of this “neutral” system, who are the ruling class? And what do you think it means when everything is “property of the state”? You’d like to think it means it belongs to all the people, but it means that individual private property has transferred into the hands of a few oligarchs, a scientific elite ruling class that reigns with “neutrality” ..

    The system being described is corruptible , meaning even if it was established as your envisioned utopia, eventually, the administrator class will become the mafia , unaccountable to the people and because they control the society, the corruption will go undetected to all but the most astute peasants.

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