Is Zeitgeist 3 about the commons?

Stefan Meretz of gives his impressions after viewing the third iteration of the Zeitgeist series.

Stefan Meretz:

“So, what is the film about and what has this to do with commons?

The movie is full of informations. One has to concentrate enormously to follow all facts and statements (especially for non-english watchers reading the subtitles is hard). The movie has four chapters: »Human Nature«, »Social Pathology«, »Project Earth«, »Rise«. In all parts the film is made very US centered. I want to focus on certain chosen aspects. I recommend reviews of Franz Nahrada, Andreas Exner und Tomasz Konicz (sorry: all in german), which point to important critical points in a striking way, but also name the positive aspects. Critique of science and technical fetishism, patriarchal view (pay attention to clichéd background images of »family« etc.), shortened notion of money (money=debt) etc.; praise for questioning the system and radically breaking with exchange, money, market, state and politics. The movie easily and clearly distance from the »management left«, which is biased in the swamp of the old, although they basically strive for the same.

In chapter »Human Nature« a lot of time is used to argue against genetic determinism, against »being inhered« of nearly everything: crime, alcoholism, laziness, overweight, poverty etc. Regarding this question the stupidity seems to be boundless in the USA. This does not mean, that such debates do not occur in Europe, but they are not so primitive and need more effort to justify a genetic determinism. The movie brilliantly decodes the economic interests behind such arguments: prison as profit system which »lives« from jailing more and more people; health care as system which only profits from steadily suffering and sick people, a system with no interest in real »healing« etc.

However, it is shortsighted to change genetic determinism with a kind of an environmental determinism: It ought to be the environment which makes all that which is imputed to the genes. Allegedly the sciences have recognized this clearly, but due to ideological reasons it is not conceded. However, also the environmental determinism is an ideology, is a reduction, and blinds out, that humans are producing the conditions themselves under which they live and suffer. Simply to walk on the »other side« of the dualistic determinist view disimproves the situation.

Indeed, it is the socio-economic system which has to be changed (where humans in a new »environment« should change in a better direction, that’s the hope). However: Who should do this if all are »victims of the culture«? There is an unlogical answer: the scientists. Why should they be excluded from the environmental determination? What enables them to gain insights which are denied for others? The background of this position (which is heavily criticized in the above mentioned articles) is the idea of a »neutrality of sciences« and a notion of »the scientific method«, which is dead dangerous. If someone owns »the method« then s/he — completely unscientific — takes off from others, justifies a higher status, legitimates authority and, finally, elitism. Actually, this has not be necessary, but in the movie it is and therefore has to be criticized (surely in more detail than I do here).

On the other hand, the alternative to determinism can not be scientific relativism, where in some way all are right and not right at the same time — depending on what one wants to see as »science«. But this too would only be a dualistic repulsion, which is right in criticizing »the scientific method«, but can not serve as an own fundament of relativism. Dogmatism and relativism are only two sides of the same coin, of the same reduction. Contrary to this, the notion of truth has to be defended which, however, requires for each scientific object an own adequate approach. Method and object are not separated from each other as »scientific methodists« claim, and the method is not »subjectively relative« as »postmodern relativists« assert, but the method depends on its object, is related to this object and is only valid in respect to this object.

Chapter »Social Pathology« shows the intellectual roots of modern market paradigm with John Locke and Adam Smith. In detail this is interesting (i.e. regarding Locke, that private property should leave »enough for all«). However, the history of capitalist market economy is not only a history of ideas, but a real history of the qualitative transition of an agrarian-mechanical to an industrial way of production — which is not addressed in the film. Then at some point big industry and monetary system »are there«, and then systematically produced imbalances, waste of resources and inefficiencies are criticized.

The way of unmasking capitalism as an inefficient system of production of vital goods is excellent, although the systems ideological self-attribution always claims the contrary. The monetary system is described as systematically producing over-indebtedness and inflation inevitably heading for a collapse, because the state cannot create money from nothing to compensate exponential growing debts. The backlink to real economy as well as money being value and (fictitious) capital is, however, too narrowly considered. Overall, notion and concept of »economy« are maintained, but the »scarcity-based market economy« is criticized as »anti-economic«. »Scarcity« is debunked as social form of commodity production, which has nothing (or only a little) to do with the »nature« of limited goods. »Scarcity« is made, it is not »there«.

In Chapter »Project Earth« the Zeitgeist alternative of a Resource-Based Economy (RBE) as a »true economy« is presented. The starting point is as simple as true: Humans need things for their living which they produce by using resources. The consumption of resources when producing goods has to be adjusted to the regeneration ability and limited availability of resources to allow for a good living for all humans on earth — today and for future generations. In order to achieve that, the resource stock of whole earth has to be mapped in order to be able to make scientifically reasonable — and not politically driven — decisions about the structure of production. It is annoying that exactly at this point the german subtitles falsely speak about »commodities« (instead of goods), but this does not touch english listeners.

As an example a city of the Venus Project is presented, which has been designed following engineer-optimized concepts. Well, I don’t want to live in such a city. At this point the alleged »neutrality of sciences« break through, which find itself decoupled from humans needs although the film continuously emphasizes that all is about satisfying human needs. Do we see here creeping in the domination of the experts view over the people? This would be a dystopian vision, which the Zeitgeist project does not require at all. But actually these circular optimized Venus cities are not at issue, because a societal change towards a RBE would be a gigantic transformation project of existing grown structures into reasonable resource-saving new structures, which start from the needs of the people. The valid idea that infrastructures have to be most effective as possible (therefore the circular form of Venus cities) applied to existing real cities would result in enormous savings without bringing them into such a circular form. From the recources viewpoint a complete rebuilding of everything would be stupid.

Human needs as the driver of a societal transformation are clearly underestimated. Here, we don’t see much trust in the people, which isn’t surprising if one sees them simply as »victims of culture«. The insight, that separated satisfaction of needs through »consumption« leads to highly contradictory and self-damaging behavior, is partly realized but not used here. If we think reversely by having a societal form allowing for integration of diverse human needs in a process of communicative mediation previous to production, then balanced and susstainable inclusion of all needs would be possible. Once the people have a real bearing on their conditions, they will use them. In fact, a »buying decision« is not influence, instead real influence has to bear on production. Basically this is possible in a RBE, because most separating elements are abandoned: money, market, state, politics, domination.

Finally, the last chapter »Rise« is about a possible replacement of current »socio-economic system« (it is rarely spoken about capitalism). Here, »Moving Forward« toils as all others do who want a need-oriented society. This can not be any different. Again, we drastically understand as much the global system called »market economy« has failed: endless resource exploitation, deforestation, hunger (every day 18000 children starve), people displacement, climate catastrophe — nothing we not already know in some way. But who can stand this every day without suppressing it or pushing the »guilt« to the victims?

Also this is nothing, which not other active people would bewail, but Zeitgeist draws the only valid and logical consequence: If the socio-economic system did produce all that, then a solution can never be found inside this system. It is not enough to elongate or adjust some levers. Instead, a new way to produce the livelihood has to be brought into the world. This new way of production cannot base on the mechanisms of the old — money, market, state, commodities, exchange. Probably there is some more, including the Zeitgeist-own religious faith in the sciences. However, central points which normally are avoided by »left« approaches are on the table.

The final image of the movie where the ruling class drop their power and the ruled people drop their money is not more than this: an image using the medium of a film. It is art, because other then artistically one can not show this scenario of an end of a society. Every more concrete imagination would be unbelievable. We will see, whether Zeitgeist kann become a global movement. It is not really clear why they rarely exist in Germany. Maybe, because the illusionists who believe, that immanent reforms can save anything are dominant. Despite using unfit means they, however, express the same wish which Zeitgeist represents: May the society become human. What does this has to do with commons?

The simple answer is: Commons are a RBE on a small scale. Simply said, as RBE looks »from above« the commons look »from below«. The RBE is weak answering the question of how people will create truly reasonable and human circumstances — the commons show this in numerous examples on the small or medium scale. The commons are weak answering the question of how the commons principles can be extended on the societal level — RBE is presenting an approach for whole society.

However, and I am quite sure about that, it would come to a serious »clash of cultures«, when anti-monetarist and technique-believing Zeitgeist people bump on monetary ignorant and technically sceptical commoners — very roughly said. This sometimes happens yet within the commons, .i.e. if »digital« meet »natural« commoners.

But why shouldn’t this become exciting provided that one is willing to learn from each other?”

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