Originally posted on Muertos's blog (link
I've blogged several times before about the Zeitgeist Movement. This bizarre organization, based almost exclusively on the Internet and spawned from the <em style="font-style: italic;">Zeitgeist series of Internet films, is primarily aimed at spreading conspiracy theories, but another objective of the movement is to implement a total top-down reordering of society along the lines of a neo-utopian vision called the Venus Project. In this blog I'm not going to take on the conspiracy aspects of the Zeitgeist Movement
, because I think I've covered that topic well already
. Instead, I'm going to discuss their utopian ideology, a subject which hasn't interested me much in the past; however, a book I read recently did a fantastic job of articulating and fleshing out the doubts I always had about the Zeitgeisters' ambitious plans for humanity's future. Therefore, in this blog I intend to explain why the Zeitgeist Movement/Venus Project's utopian vision for the future of humanity is, at best, doomed never to get off the ground, and at worst is a recipe for a catastrophe that could potentially claim millions of lives.
First, the basic background. In the 1970s Jacque Fresco, who bills himself as an "industrial designer," came up with what he thought was a great idea for human progress: let's all live in specially-designed circular cities and put computers in charge of the world to distribute resources according to the scientific method. Since the seventies, and particularly since Fresco fell in with <em style="font-style: italic;">Zeitgeist director and conspiracy theorist Peter Joseph Merola, Fresco and his followers have championed what they call a "resource-based economy" (RBE). We'll all be happier, say Merola and Fresco, abolishing our horrible "money system" and living in an RBE. All needs will be met, all wants pacified, and all desires fulfilled--by robots and computers. It's difficult to find a group of utopians with bigger <em style="font-style: italic;">cajones than the Zeitgeist Movement.
In 1998 James C. Scott, a professor who specializes in agrarian studies with a sociological bent, published a ground-breaking book called <em style="font-style: italic;">Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. (You can find it on Amazon here
). This book, which commanded a great deal of attention from sociologists, agriculturalists, and historians, examines a few of the great social engineering disasters of the 20th century, including Stalin's forced collectivization in Russia in the 1930s and the Quixotic plan of a dictator in Tanzania in the 1970s to relocate most of his population to efficient, government-run farm villages. In <em style="font-style: italic;">Seeing Like a State, Scott analyzes the causes of these failures, which are naturally complex but they can be boiled down to a few common elements. The most important element is what Scott refers to as "high modernist ideology," which he defines thusly:
"[High modernism] is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. It originated, of course, in the West, as a by-product of unprecedented progress in science and technology."
This definition describes the Zeitgeist Movement/Venus Project perfectly. The departure point of Zeitgeisters' belief system--aside from conspiracy theories, of course--is the assumption that all the material needs of the world's people can be provided at our current level of technology, if only we change our social and economic system to allow it. Zeitgeisters embody Scott's definition of high modernist ideology in several interesting ways. First, there is the blind and virtually unquestioning acceptance of the concept of superabundance, which Zeitgeisters believe is technologically created. Second, Zeitgeisters' ideology explicitly refers to the "scientific method," which they say is the bedrock of how their system will organize the world. Thirdly, they insist that human nature is mutable and will be subordinated to ideology in an RBE order. Finally, their visions--lavishly illustrated in artist's depictions of circular cities and YouTube videos--unabashedly wallow in technological and aesthetic fetishism. Any one of their designs could have been torn from a sketchbook from the 1930s film <em style="font-style: italic;">Things To Come, depicting a utopian future world where denizens of an automated city are pampered by ubiquitous machinery.
Scott's analysis, however, does not bode well for high modernist projects. The thesis of <em style="font-style: italic;">Seeing Like a State is that high modernist ideology ignores the complexity, expansiveness, and functional chaos of systems and social structures that develop organically--such as our "money system" that Zeitgeisters want to abolish. In simpler terms, high modernist projects are doomed to fail because they are profoundly naïve about human behavior, institutions and culture. High modernists simply assume that people and their behaviors can be neatly crammed into well-ordered boxes that will operate efficiently. Their contempt for the idea of human nature is a by-product of this myopia. History shows, however, that these types of projects <em style="font-style: italic;">always fail. When a high modernist project is undertaken by an authoritarian state, such as the Soviet Union under Stalin, the zeal to achieve unrealistic goals combined with the state's increasing efforts to streamline the process often results in death and suffering on a colossal scale.
Let's take an example, one that doesn't involve mass murder: the city of Brasília. In the 1950s, the government of Brazil was eager to forge a totally new capital city, one that would be functional, efficient, beautiful and above all ultra-modern. The government cleared a tract of jungle in the interior and went right to work, utilizing the best city planners who envisioned broad open squares, spacious apartment buildings, and easy access of the city's residents (mostly government bureaucrats) to places of work as well as cultural facilities. When it opened in 1960, Brasília was the most modern and remarkable city on the globe.
Sounds great, right? Well, not so much. In fact Brasília was a dismal failure. No one congregates in the broad open squares because there's nothing to do there--no shops, no places of social interaction, no <em style="font-style: italic;">reason to go there other than to <em style="font-style: italic;">be there. Everyone hates the apartment buildings because they're bland, blocky and utterly devoid of any sort of character. Traffic is a nightmare because the streets are all highways designed for a single purpose: to take people from their homes to workplaces. There are no side streets, no neighborhoods, none of the character of an urban city. As a result, Brasília's residents are frustrated and depressed, and the place has the reputation of being bleak and oppressive, like Batman's Gotham City if it were designed by Ayn Rand's fictional architect Howard Roarke. High modernist planning certainly failed the people of Brasília.
Another and more sinister example: Stalin's forced collectivization. In the late 1920s, Stalin wanted to modernize the Soviet Union and streamline its process of agricultural production, thus ending Russia's age-old problems of feeding itself. (He also wanted to crush the peasant class, but that's beside the point). His high modernism was administrative in nature, involving lumping all the peasants in a village together in one commune with specific production quotas. The project was a disaster on a virtually genocidal scale. Millions of people starved to death between 1929 and 1934, and when Stalin's quotas weren't met, brutal repression and crackdown were the result. The Soviet state was ideologically incapable of recognizing that its high modernist ideology simply couldn't replace the culture, micro-economies and behavior patterns of Russian peasants. In a conflict between those peasants and ideology, the peasants paid the price. The soil of Russia today is littered with their bones.
What does this all have to do with the Zeitgeist Movement? Just this: <em style="font-style: italic;">Zeitgeist wants the entire human race to adopt a high modernist ideology regarding the production and distribution of resources. Peter Merola's and Jacque Fresco's plans for the future are far grander than Brasília or even the collectivization of Stalin's peasant masses. Zeitgeisters demand nothing less than radical transformation of the <em style="font-style: italic;">entire earth. Not that this goal will ever come even remotely within their reach, but Scott's book very clearly explains why the goal itself is naïve, misguided and ultimately dangerous. It's the ultimate pinnacle of high modernist folly, and would invariably collapse into a disaster so bloody and chaotic that it would make Stalin's forced collectivization look benign by comparison.
Scott explains how high modernist projects almost invariably tempt authoritarian measures in their implementation:
"First and foremost, high modernism implies a truly radical break with history and tradition....All human habits and practices that were inherited and hence not based on scientific reasoning--from the structure of the family and patterns of residence to moral values and forms of production--would have to be reexamined and redesigned...
The sources of this view are deeply authoritarian. If a planned social order is better than the accidental, irrational deposit of historical practice, two conclusions follow. Only those who have the scientific knowledge to discern and create this superior social order are fit to rule in the new age. Further, those who through retrograde ignorance refuse to yield to the new scientific plan need to be educated to its benefits or else swept aside."
If the Zeitgeisters ever got their way, this would be the inevitable result. The change they envision for society is so massive, so sweeping and so total that the only way it could ever be implemented would be by force--probably by the force of a large authoritarian government or perhaps multi-national coalition. To be fair, Zeitgeisters do not now advocate the use of force to achieve their Resource Based Economy, at least so far as I know. Also, do not misunderstand me as stating that I think Zeitgeisters <em style="font-style: italic;">intend a bloody result to their designs; clearly they don't. However, it's plain that the temptation to use force to achieve their goals lies on the other side of the inevitable realization that a Resource Based Economy isn't going to happen by itself and that it's not likely to be adopted voluntarily by significant sectors of the world's population. As in Stalin's Russia, the ideology will inevitably be valued over the people who resist it, whether they resist willingly or by accident. Zeitgeisters already operate with disturbing ease in the realm of "ends justify the means" arguments--just ask one why it's justifiable to push demonstrably false conspiracy theories in the service of talking up a Resource Based Economy and you will experience this phenomenon.
Even without the addition of an authoritarian implementation, the Zeitgeisters' RBE model is a recipe for mass suffering. High modernist projects that attempt to tinker with peoples' basic means of food and sustenance are particularly dangerous, because even slight mistakes in the ideological model of distribution usually translate into starving bellies somewhere. One can easily imagine the RBE model failing to supply food and necessities because the high modernists who thought it up have done so without regard to the way our organic and chaotic system of resource management--imperfect as it clearly is--actually works on the ground. Zeitgeisters would be reluctant to undermine their own ideology by allowing the old "money system" economics to backstop their bold plans for fear that people would come to rely on the backstopping and that ultimately nothing would change. Here again the temptation to ignore or rationalize mass suffering to avoid admitting ideological failure is probably irresistible. Even without any nefarious designs, therefore, the Zeitgeist program for a better world is ominous.
High modernist projects fail because they fundamentally devalue organically-created social structures, and they invariably victimize people because this process of devaluation is, in itself, profoundly dehumanizing. In high modernist schemes the residents of Brasília, the peasants of 1930s Russia or the farmers of Tanzania are reduced to nothing more than interchangeable cogs in a gigantic machine, designed by people who profess to know better and who demand compliance with their better way. This is the essence of the Zeitgeist Movement's social vision for the future. The pretty pictures of circular cities and neatly-trimmed parks and gardens look great in YouTube videos, but they do not show the profound suffering and staggering human cost that adopting such a lifestyle would necessarily entail. They don't show those things because Zeitgeisters are fundamentally incapable of conceiving that their ideology <em style="font-style: italic;">could have that effect. They're as blind as the overzealous architects, city planners and Soviet revolutionaries described in <em style="font-style: italic;">Seeing Like a State. Given the colossal scale of Zeitgeist's designs, their dangerous naïvete far outstrips any of those examples.
Fortunately, in the real world we don't have to worry about Zeitgeisters implementing their designs, because they'll never get anywhere close to achieving them. Zeitgeist is a fringe movement existing mostly on the Internet. Oddly, its internal cohesion seems to owe more to its reliance on conspiracy theories than on any conscious unification behind the RBE concept (despite what many of its followers say to the contrary). Not a single economist, sociologist or government official, to my knowledge, has associated him or herself with the Zeitgeist Movement. The leader of the movement, Peter Joseph Merola, holds no position of power and isn't likely to in the future. But it's worth thinking about why the Zeitgeist Movement's defective ideology, and other schemes like it that will invariably be proposed in the future, hold attraction for some people. High modernist plans have been with us for a long time and will probably continue to be implemented in the future--and they will fail as spectacularly, and often as bloodily, as the past schemes detailed in <em style="font-style: italic;">Seeing Like a State. What we can learn from these failures, and from Scott's book, is how to recognize these projects when some future politician, revolutionary or industrial designer proposes them and demands we follow them. Analyzing the failure of such past schemes arms us with invaluable knowledge on how to resist future ones. In that sense, <em style="font-style: italic;">Seeing Like a State is a very important book, and one that deserves to be read by anyone who, like the Zeitgeisters, dreams of a bold new future for humanity. They may learn that the infinitesimal chances of success of such bold futures often come at an appalling and tragic human cost.