Having just watched the newly released documentary film Zeitgeist: Moving Forward I feel compelled to write some kind of a response. For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with the Zeitgeist documentaries, the film-maker Peter Joseph or the web-based ‘movement’ I shall also attempt to provide a (hopefully) brief introduction/overview to it all.
For the sake of clearing up any misconceptions you may have about this article:
- This is not an attempt to debunk or dismiss the documentary, there are plenty of people who are better qualified to dispute the veracity of Joseph’s films than I am.
- Neither is it an endorsement of the documentary or the associated organisation known as the ‘Zeitgeist Movement’.
- I am not a member of the ‘movement’, although I sometimes read their fortnightly newsletter because I’m genuinely interested in seeing what they’re up to.
So what’s it all about then?
Zeitgeist: Moving Forward is the third in a series of documentary films by Peter Joseph. The original film Zeitgeist was released in 2007 and was immensely popular, attracting millions of online views, although Joseph has supposedly distanced himself from a great deal of its content (particularly part 2, which was essentially a repackaged collection of 9/11 conspiracy theories) since then. It is easy to dismiss Zeitgeist as just another conspiracy theorist’s fevered dream, especially when you consider that the film adopts the standard tone and techniques of a 21st century conspiracy-movie and apparently fails to entertain the possibility that it may, in any way, be wrong (which is usually a bad sign) or that its evidence might be flawed.
A little over a year later Joseph finished work on Zeitgeist: Addendum then founded the ‘Zeitgeist Movement‘, a web-based organisation which uses the movie content as its ideological basis. It is at this point that things really get interesting because the focus of Z:A has shifted away from the kind of specific conspiracies perceived by the film-maker seen in to a far broader structural/social analysis. Again the film is divided into three sections with parts one and two exploring the monetary system and the USA’s foreign policy, while part three introduces Jacques Fresco, founder of the ‘Venus Project’. The Venus Project is an organisation that attempts to visualise an alternative economic reality as an example for the ordinary public, as well as advocating a social philosophy generally based on the principles of the scientific method – we’ll discuss this group later on. I found the critique of fractional reserve banking provided in part one to the be most interesting and personally significant section of the film as it investigates the structure of our contemporary economic system and explains how this directly affects you and I. To Joseph’s credit, the source material for the second film seems to be much better researched and unlike its predecessor Z:A includes face-to-face interviews, which makes for a superior documentary.
Which roughly brings us up to date, so: its February 2011, Zeitgeist: Moving Forward been screened in 346 cinemas around the world at the time of writing (though most viewers will watch it on YouTube, where it is now freely available), and I’ve already expended far too many words and wasted too much of your time on a prelude.
The film begins by posing the question “what is the nature of human nature?” to a selection of leading academics which including neurologists, sociologists and a criminal psychologist who specializes in studying the most violent offenders. The film seeks to correct a popular misconception about genetics, namely that human behaviour is somehow encoded or ‘hard-wired’ and thus implicitly unalterable. What unites all of the interviewees in this section is that their studies show a person’s environment is more important to their behavioural and physiological development than genetic predispositions. The film also shows that the only ‘pre-programmed’ part of our nature is a set of fundamental ‘human needs’ (water, nutrition, love, touch, etc) and it is to the extent that our environment provides or denies us these ‘needs’ that decides how we as human beings develop. Based on these observations the film then goes further, arguing that the social environment created by post-industrial capitalism is not conducive to satisfying these human needs.
I was impressed by the interviewees featured in Z:MF, who all appear to be leading experts in their fields, and I’d argue that this is a significant improvement over the previous films. The most crucial difference between Joseph’s Zeitgeist movement and other ideologies is that it is grounded in up-to-date scientific knowledge (instead of having its origins in superstition* like the prevalent political ideologies of today) and interviews such as these help to emphasise this difference.
*(I could spend a long time demonstrating how modern Conservatism, Liberalism, Fascism and Socialism all have their philosophical roots in some thoroughly discredited Christian metaphysics, but that would require an entire essay I don’t have time to write. You’ll have to take my word for it. Or not.)
The films also argue that all improvements to our standard of living, going all the way back to the foundations of human civilisation, are the result of technological improvements (think: the plough, mass production, steam power, the internet, etc) and have nothing to do with politics, religion or economics. This could be a particularly contentious issue for some, as it is commonly accepted in contemporary public discourse that free market economics and democratic politics have improved our lives and such assertions routinely go unchallenged. . Personally I find it hard to believe that today’s spin-doctored professional politicians and multi-billionaire investment bankers have any concern for my interests or well-being. See the film and decide for yourself.
No money, no politics
The Zeitgeist films are nothing if not ambitious. The ultimate goal of the movement is clearly stated as being the total redesign/reconstruction of human society, and they see their current activities as being the first steps towards achieving this aim. At the moment the ZGM seems primarily to be concerned with raising awareness of their cause, either through various forms of media or by directly encouraging people to watch the films.
This new form of society is based on two key priciples: firstly, that the essential ‘human needs’ established earlier on (such as nutrition, familial love, social integration, etc) must be universally satisfied; and second, that we live on a planet of finite resources which must be conserved in order for humankind to endure. This means that the economy is entirely based on the availability of resources and the satisfaction of human needs. It sounds simplistic but the implications are far-reaching: it means a total abandonment of wasteful consumerism (no more Coca-Cola, no more fashion, no more iPads and no more cars), shared/communal property, global free energy which must be drawn entirely from renewable and sustainable sources, and no more money. Sounds implausible right?
Perhaps, not so long ago, it would have been. In both Zeitgeist: Addedum and Zeitgeist: Moving Forward the argument is put forward that what has changed is the technology and scientific expertise which has become available to humankind and, as I mentioned earlier, it is the scientific method that is to act as the final arbiter of what works and what doesn’t in the Zeitgeist society.
All of the above is hardly sufficient for describing the ZGM’s alternative society but hopefully serves to give you a rough idea about what they are proposing.
A rational future or a hopeless utopian dream?
I have come to believe that the Zeitgeist films are genuinely important. If nothing else they are useful cultural artefacts which signify a major change in how many people now see the world, their place in it and their relationship to each other and, whilst I remain highly sceptical about the predictions made in the latter stages of Z:MF (as I am towards any kind of ‘futurist’ predictions about the development of technology), the socio-economic critique which forms most of the documentary is compelling and feels particularly valid during this period of economic and environmental crises.
Many people will dismiss the Zeitgeist documentaries and movement as being ‘conspiracy theorists and their usual insane garbage’ but I would rather engage with their views than pretend they are irrelevant or don’t exist. Zeitgeist: Addendum and Moving Forward are effectively a manifesto for a global anti-capitalist organisation that is quietly amassing quite a large following and I suspect that we are going to see a corresponding growth in their public profile sooner or later. The global recession triggered by the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage crisis has proved to be something of a catalyst for progressive political thought and it seems inevitable (to me) that disenfranchised young people will look to alternative ideologies or belief-systems for answers at a time when all previous economic doctrines (Neoliberalism, Communism, John Maynard Keynes, Hayek, the Chicago School of Economics & the rest) have failed to deliver us from the notorious boom-bust cycle, let alone enable us to create a better world.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do is watch Z:MF and decide for yourself. I hope that these reflections haven’t prejudiced you for or against the film and instead merely served to pique your interest, though if you’ve already seen the film and have anything that you’d like to add, please feel free to leave a comment. One thing’s for certain: these are interesting times in which we are living.