A 3-point critique of Zeitgeist, Moving Forward

Part I: Review from Andreas Exner

Excerpted from Andreas Exner, who sees three points of critique:

1. The blindness to production

“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.

2. 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.

3. 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.”

Part II. Evaluation from Eric Hunting

“I downloaded and watched this movie last week. I found it far superior to the earlier movies in that it was less focused on the hackneyed theme of a grand class conspiracy and, instead, focused on characterizing the global economic/cultural situation as a social pathology that, while exploited for the benefit of some, is less conspiracy and more evolutionary. This is more in line with how Fresco himself has characterized this in his writing. The film also made the movement’s best attempt yet at specifically defining the nature of a resource based economic system. This was a breakthrough as the concept has never been present well in the Venus Project’s own video media and has only ever been offered to the world in various written works. It’s still going to be a difficult concept for many because there are few to no historic examples that the public has any collective memory of. And the notion of automating the management of world resources is quite alien to a society quite ignorant of just how automated economics already is today. So the concept is going to remain a hard sell. It seems, though, that, with this film, this Zeitgeist movement has moved beyond a class protest concerned with stimulating fear and anger for sake of public attention to what could be called an economic atheism with a potentially more coherent ideology -and potential for much greater credibility. I see that as significant progress.

However, as with the past films and as with the Venus Project in general, we’re still left with no specific plans of action. No presentation of anything the audience is supposed to actually do about the dysfunctional status quo but embrace the suppressed reality of the situation. We are given an emotional impression of a fanciful near future global mass social uprising resulting from a spontaneous mass epiphany triggered by a ‘tipping point’ in economic failure and social strife. But nowhere are we told how to functionally prepare for this imagined event.

As a conclusion to the description of the new economic model we are presented with Fresco’s model city of the future as an example of the rational habitat and its superlative lifestyle such a scientific approach to global resource management would produce. But, beautiful as it is, frankly, it’s very much a Greek Temple on a Golf Course. A Neo-EPCOT. A scientifically engineered urban megastructure of the classic Modernist sort that exists as a set-piece of architecture, presumably springing from the aether fully formed and inhabited and devoid of the organic evolution that characterizes any real city. It is, on the face of it, implausible because it can only exist and function in its finished full-scale form and would require a kind of nation-scale public works project of the likes -and time frame- of the Great Wall of China to create. If this is a suggestion of an objective, it’s not a good one. Where would you start? (this is a problem I understand well from my work on The Millennial Project and the problem of Marshal Savage’s similarly anachronistic notion of marine arcologies – which in turn relates to Paulo Soleri’s similarly flawed arcologies) Real cities are organic constructs. Emergent phenomenon. They are not planned but rather generated by an attractor formed by the convergence of interests on a geographically strategic location. They grow incrementally and must be functional and habitable at every stage of growth. One of the minor contradictions in the Venus Project vision is the way Fresco’s mid-century Big Machine model of technology and architecture contradicts the core paradigms of a Post-Industrial culture and the contemporary trends in technological evolution he is otherwise advocating. The Venus Project needs a more 21st century urban theory to compliment its economic theory. Maybe then it will have a functional model for a habitat it can actually aspire to build now, today, as an example for its new way of life.

Still, overall this movie seems like real progress for this movement.”