A response to Zeitgeist 2011

The makers of this year’s Zeitgeist documentary didn’t do a bad job. They delivered a well-organised and consistent narrative about the capitalist system, as usual paying special attention to its psycho-political roots and consequences.

The opening part shows some knowledgeable social scientists explaining the psychopathological base of consumerism and aggression, and is nice to watch. The movie continues explaining the common sense logic of the impossibility to run an economy addicted to infinite growth on a finite planet.
They present the important (and much too unknown to the general public) concepts of intrinsic and planned obsolescence, the necessary inefficiency constituting our lifecycle productivism-consumerism society.
They have Michael Ruppert, whose brilliant role as a narrator in the documentary “Collapse” made me a big fan, explaining the ultimate failure of growth-capitalism as a result of the scarcity of that all-important natural resource: oil.

Zeitgeist then starts with a clean slate and does some problem solving. The result is a network of sterile, round-shaped cities with life-supporting functions aligned in rings around a central educational dome. The movie carefully explains how a resource control system blends with a production system and a distribution system – on a global scale. It would be our only chance as a species in the long run. But wait a minute, doesn’t that sound familiar?
This was intended: The movie shows a booing audience comparing the universal technocratic proposal to Stalin-style communism and discarding it without further consideration. It makes for a strong effect and certainly some consumers of this movie would per persuaded by this rhetorical stunt.

These kind of perfect cities scare the shit out of me, not because they have anything to do with communism (they don’t), not because they seem so idealistic and unattainable, but because they dangerously oversimplify human need. Humans are the plasma that moves around these perfected cyber-cities, plugged into a system that feeds them with calories, education and leisure time. A handful of volunteers takes care of the maintenance, but apart from that nothing has to be done.
Now it might be possible that this all-equal world without work, money, necessities of life will become an option for humans, but that should be very seriously researched. You can’t assume that humans will automatically satisfy all their mental needs if you put them in a system of almost completely mechanized universal ilfe support. What about their sense of purpose, of achievement? In spite of the movie’s healthy scientific start, mental needs seem to be reduced to “love, companionship, positive attention” and the like. But you can’t discard achievement, competition, and pride overnight.

I am not saying that such a city is per se impossible. As we are moving into an era where the essence of our species becomes fluid, we should be prepared for even bolder propositions. But it can never be presupposed. The alternative to capitalism shouldn’t turn a blind eye to human’s need for a sense of achievement or even competition, the way capitalism turns a blind eye to human’s need for not-for-profit collaboration and sharing. An honest, scientific account of our mental needs could have improved this Zeitgeist.

That said, I recommend this film, along with “Collapse” mentioned earlier. But an alternative to the centrally planned world of perfectibilitas (an insurmountable perfect state could show as dangerous as the delusive infinite growth paradigm) shown here deserves some attention too. What about a world with show, deliberate population decline? A world in which production of new consumer (and hence producer) goods becomes virtually superfluous because the spell of obsolescence has been broken and upcycling becomes a way of life? A world in which people have a true, respected choice to be something else than mainstream – regardless of that being our current sick consumerist rat-race or a futurist technocratic amusement park world.

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Kamiel Choi

Dutch philosopher and poet, sometimes sharing thoughts on the internet.

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