Below is the latest video from the Zeitgeist folks. It’s more sophisticated in its analysis, and more persuasive in its presentation, than their previous material. You can watch the video first, or you can read the review first, or some intertwined combination, your choice. My review starts after the clickable image below. I don’t recommend accepting the film and its ideas uncritically.
ZEITGEIST: MOVING FORWARD |
OFFICIAL RELEASE | 2011
The film is divided into two parts, with a very dramatic transition between them, around point 1:30:16. Part 1, prior to that point, is a radical critical analysis of the current socio-ecomic system, concluding that at its very root the system is flawed. Part 2 is along these lines: Let’s assume we have a blank slate, that we can start all over, and let’s design a better system, a sustainable system, a system that matches the realities of a finite and vulnerable physical environment, and a system that recognizes human needs.
That basic pattern – radical critique of the current system, followed by a radically different system proposal – is very common these days. Not surprising, given the obvious fact that the current system is failing, particularly since the 2008 collapse and its aftermath of economy-crippling sovereign debt. A new system proposal – a viable model for socio-economic transformation – is indeed called for, and many writers and thinkers are seeking solutions.
People like David Korten in his series of books, the Transition Town People with their localization and carbon-reduction projects, the ecovillage movement, Michael Albert with his Parecon system, the local currency folks – these and many others are working on the same basic problem Zeitgeist is dealing working on, and everyone is coming at the investigation with their own perspective, assumptions, and analysis. My own work falls into this same pattern, radical critique and radical proposals, based on my own perspective, assumptions, and analysis.
In every case, these proposals for transformation are presented in persuasive terms, by analysts and innovators who seem to be quite sincere in their belief that their solution deals with the ‘real root problems’, and that their solution will lead to a new kind of society that we will like and that will be better for us. This ‘self belief’, for reasons psychological, typically means that the system-proposers don’t give serious and objective consideration to the various competing proposals that are floating around.
The solution proposers typically become partisan promoters; their assumptions and analysis become their unquestioned reality, and they tend to dismiss alternative solutions simply on the grounds that they are different than the ‘right solution’, and therefore must be ‘flawed solutions’ – end of discussion. Each solution then tends to gain a partisan following, dividing the ‘population of the concerned’ into camps, which don’t talk to one another. Thus we don’t only have the Zeitgeist videos, presenting their analysis and proposals, we also have the Zeitgeist Movement, with a flashy website, promotion, speakers, events, chapters, outreach, etc.
What it comes down to is that the ‘solution-generating community’ tends to have an engineering mentality. The engineering paradigm is to devote some time to analyzing the problem, out of that come up with a ‘design center’ for a solution, and then devote the rest of your energy elaborating that design center until it is judged to solve the problem as originally analyzed. After that comes promotion, and further elaboration of the design. Reconsideration of the early assumptions, back in the problem analysis, is off limits. The psychological identity of the engineer is tied up with his baby, his solution. He’s done his work, he’s satisfied with his solution, and he doesn’t want to go back to the drawing board. His mission is now to defend and sell the solution.
My own approach has been a bit different than that. The standard engineering cycle has three phases: analysis, choice of design center, elaboration of design. My approach has been to engage in an ongoing sequence of such engineering cycles. I’ve put out a number of analyses+solutions over the years, one in the form of a book. I circulate each proposal as widely as I can, particularly targeting knowledgeable people and people with their own solutions, with the goal of testing the proposal and listening carefully to critiques and suggested improvements. And I review the proposal myself, looking for where it might fail or might do better.
Recently I’ve gone back to the drawing board yet again, due to the new conditions, both problems and opportunities, that have emerged since the 2008 collapse. Those ideas which survived earlier testing survive, and issues of financial paradigms and national sovereignty become central in the new design center. It’s an evolutionary approach to solution-seeking, where fundamental assumptions are repeatedly reconsidered. It is in fact a scientific approach, where hypotheses evolve through testing and refinement. This detachment from being permanently committed to a particular hypothesis (solution model) distinguishes the scientific mentality from the engineering mentality, objective research from fixation on a particular model.
It is from that objective perspective that I evaluate the various solution proposals in circulation. Where there are good ideas I borrow them. I critique a proposal from the position of studying and understanding it, and pointing out its own problems, not from a perspective of debate vis-a-vis my own particular current hypothesis solution.
Zeitgeist’s ‘moving forward’ solution has serious faults in its problem analysis, which lead to faulty assumptions in its design center, which leads in turn to increasingly serious faults as the design is elaborated.
The heart of the Zeitgeist analysis is about economics. The ‘radical critique’ of the current economic system, unrestrained capitalism, is sound, an analysis I and many others share. The blind pursuit of growth and profit, without regard for human or environmental consequences, is madness on a finite planet: economics must be based on sustainability, and must not disregard human and environmental consequences. I’d say that much is a general consensus among sensible people everywhere, including most of those who are ‘solution proposers’.
Where Zeitgeist gets it wrong is when it concludes that all forms of market economics, and even money itself, is intrinsically based on unrestrained desire for wealth accumulation, is therefore essentially equivalent to unrestrained capitalism, and therefore needs to be rejected in any sustainable solution. This confusion, of capitalism with market economics generally, is a widely held confusion. Many people, not just the Zeitgeist folks, equate all competitive market systems with capitalism.
They are however not equivalent, and this can be demonstrated both theoretically and empirically. The best theoretical demonstration I’ve seen is by David Korten, in his book, The Post-Corporate World, Life After Capitalism. He contrasts what he calls a ‘market economy’ with capitalism. And his ‘market economy’ is essentially the same model developed by Adam Smith, in his book, The Wealth of Nations.
The basic principle of a market economy is that the economy conform to certain constraints, the most important of which is that all producers and consumers are relatively small, so that their activity cannot artificially distort market prices. There are other constraints as well. If these constraints are satisfied – and they can be with appropriate regulation of economic activity – then the dynamics of the economy will not lead to cartels and monopolies, nor will it lead to the concentration of wealth in a few hands. Smith’s analysis was sound, and was very carefully argued, backed up by numerous empirical examples.
Unrestrained capitalism specifically lacks that kind of regulation; both theoretically and in practice capitalism leads to cartels, monopolies, the distortion of market prices, and the concentration of wealth in a few hands. Far from being equivalent, a market economy and capitalism are in fact closer to total opposites. The Zeitgeist critique of the existing capitalist system does not apply to a sensibly regulated market economy.
From an empirical perspective, we can see market economies operating today, and we can see them throughout history. We can see that they do operate as theory predicts, when they conform to the constraints, whether through regulation, or for other reasons. For example, at a car boot sale (aka flea market) or farmers market, where lots of small vendors offer similar products from their stalls or from their vehicles, we see a market economy operating in microcosm. An ‘average market price’ emerges, based on supply and demand, and vendors compete in terms of quality, service, and efficiency, to attract customers, and to make a profit. Better-performing vendors can typically demand premium prices for their offerings, or they can achieve greater profit margins through greater management efficiency. This is how Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ operates, yielding efficient market operation that rewards competent management.
Historically we must realize that market-based trading has been going on for thousands of years, while capitalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, which didn’t become dominant until the Industrial Revolution. Before that, in Britain for example, the economy was based on aristocracy and land ownership, not on capital investments. The economy had inequalities and other problems, but it was basically sustainable and relatively stable over time. It was a mixture of a managed economy within an aristocrat’s estate, and a market economy for merchants and traders. People did seek economic advantage and profit, and market trading was involved, but the system did not have the properties critiqued in the Zeitgeist analysis.
We can also see intermediate systems, and compare and contrast their observable behaviors. For example, when the Glass-Stiegal Act was in place in the USA, a regulatory regime that separated investment banking from commercial banking, we had a more restricted kind of capitalism. When the Act was repealed, and those restrictions lifted, that permitted the creation and fraudulent marketing of toxic derivatives, which soon were created and so marketed, and which led directly to the 2008 collapse. The Zeitgeist analysis ignores such distinctions, and the effect of regulation, and ends up throwing the baby out with the bathwater – the baby being the useful efficiencies that are achieved in market economies.
Similarly, the latest Zeitgeist film presents a critique of our current political system, again a critique which I and most others would agree with, and once more Zeitgeist throws a useful baby out with the bathwater, by over-generalizing its critique.
Their critique accurately notes that our electoral system, involving politicians and political parties, is inherently corrupt. The critique leaps from that observation, to the conclusion that citizen inputs to policy are useless in general, and from there to the conclusion that a technocratic system, where decisions are made by scientists, is what is needed to achieve a sustainable economy. This last conclusion is also based on an explicit assumption expressed by Jaques Fresco, that scientists always ‘speak truth’ and are always ‘free of bias’.
The assumption that inputs by ordinary citizens are inherently useless is a wrong assumption, as is the assumption that scientists, and the scientific process, are not corruptible. Let us first consider the question of the corruptibility of science. The Zeitgeist critique brutally critiques what passes for economic ‘science’, and correctly points out that this so-called ‘science’ is in fact based on a distorted perspective, a perspective that serves the interests of powerful, influential, special interests. But Zeitgeist does not bother to turn its keen critical eye on the other ‘sciences’ that have a strong influence on pubic affairs.
If we look at the pharmaceutical industry for example, with its self-funded clinical trials, and the selective reporting of test results, we see a ‘medicinal science’ that is based on distorted test data, and serves the interests of powerful, influential special interests: the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry. This frequently results in a ‘scientific’ OK for drugs with unacceptably toxic side effects, just as distorted economic ‘science’ results in an official OK for disastrous toxic derivatives.
Similarly, in the case of genetic ‘science’, we see a distorted perspective – that each gene is responsible for a certain characteristic, and no complex interactions occur among genes – a distorted perspective that serves the interests of powerful, influential special interests: the multi-billion dollar GMO industry. As a result, GMO products with a variety of dangerous and not fully understood toxic effects – both to humans and the environment – receive an official OK from what passes for genetic ‘science’.