Friday, 16 October 2009


This appears to be the product of a remarkable movement in which religious orthodoxy and religious faith is challenged by the assertion of an essential human spirituality which resides in the oneness of each human being with every other human being, animal, plant, and element within the firmament; we are as Carl Sagan might have said: “star stuff harvesting star light’.

Well, yes, this is a reasonable observation. However, it is part of the film and the Zeigeist Movement’s conceit that this observation will enable a transformation of consciousness, which will, in turn, permit us to take “Actions for Social Transformation”. These actions it turns out are remarkably modest:

  1. We should move our bank accounts and mortgages from big corrupt banks to smaller ones.
  2. Turn off the network news and rely instead on the Internet.
  3. Refuse to join the military and encourage others to avoid military service.
  4. Leave the national power grid by installing solar and wind devices to our houses and apartments.
  5. Buy smaller hybrid cars
  6. Refuse to vote or participate in the political system.

These limited goals are, however, merely preliminary to the struggle to revolutionise our consciousness by signalling our oneness with all other people, things, and phenomena. Although, Zeitgeist is novel in advocating this rather baggy spirituality in opposition to religious faith, it is also novel, or at least unusual in today’s climate, in advocating technology as the solution to all our problems, because “our problems are technical and not political.”

This rejection of the “political”, and indeed of the “social”, is based upon a technical critique of the nature of the money supply and the banking system. In order to do this, Zeitgeist luminary, Peter Joseph, describes the creation of money and debt without any discussion of their relationship with productive activity and the fact that credit is, in fact, advanced in anticipation of future production. Joseph’s mangled and extraordinarily partial account of how a modern capitalist economy functions owes much more to the fears and suspicions of John Adams and Andrew Jackson than it does to any serious attempt to either understand or present a coherent picture of modern capitalist relations.

The system is described as a “scam” which is “designed to conceal” its real nature from the great masses of wage slaves who are compelled to work because of their indebtedness. Indebtedness is also arraigned as the manner in which the “corporatocracy” proliferates dependence, not simply among individual wage slaves, but also amongst the poorer countries of the earth. “Economic Hitmen” are sent out encourage rulers to take on unrepayable loans, if this fails, “the Jackals are sent in” to murder incorruptible leaders and overthrow uncooperative governments; finally, if all else fails, “the military are sent in to do the job.” “This”, says Peter Joseph, “ is Globalisation”. It is a “scam” which aims to build the empire and control the world through “leverage”.

Joseph does not discuss the relationship between money and debt and production. This relationship is often defied or ignored by bankers and many engaged in financial services. The fact that it is ignored is revealed by the manner in which bankers have lent money to people and institutions on the strength of assets, which have turned out to be, not assets at all, but merely more debts. The current financial crisis is in fact a violent adjustment which is forcing bankers to realise what they should never have forgotten: loans must be advanced on the clear understanding that the borrowers will be able to repay, and if they can’t repay, they must have collateral assets which will more or less cover the cost of the original loan should the debtor default.

However, Peter Joseph and Zeitgeist do not want to discuss this or the manner in which loans and investment actually move around the world opening up new points of production, permitting the expansion of industrial and agricultural activity. Interestingly, by insisting that our problems are “technical” and not “political” or social, he is able to avoid the central problem within capitalist society which is that private property in the form of capital is employed, in the pursuit of self-interest, to create many goods and services, with the result that many things which people actually need are not produced, or at least not in the required quantity or at the necessary quality. These problems of the relationship between private capital, wage workers, and public authorities, remain untouched by an analysis which seems to rest upon assertions of conspiracy and evil intent which have little relationship to reality.

This presumably explains why, as a film maker, Joseph has resorted to intense black and white images, a shadowy world, in which black and white figures move through cityscapes and more intimate scenes which appear to be entirely drawn from mid-fifties America; they are spooky images of alienation set amidst office blocks, electric advertising signs, and the multi-finned automobiles of a vanished world. We do get some contemporary images of automated car production and of starving children, but that’s all. The plenitude and prosperity of much of the modern world is nowhere to be seen. For the purposes of this film the industrial revolution in China is not taking place, Brazil has not paid off vast debts to the IMF and yet continued to maintain substantial aid programmes for the very poor, and most of Latin America is not governed by freely elected governments. What is much more important for Zeitgeist is to focus on the coups and repression of yesteryear and to posit the existence of a conspiracy of bankers, a corporatocracy, determined to sustain an “invisible government”.

The world summoned up by Zeitgeist is one in which selfish evil forces plot against the oneness of things. Consequently, Zeitgeist adds little or nothing to our understanding of capitalism, and does little to enable us to think of ways of actually strengthening social solidarity.


The truth is that governments in rich capitalist countries are not responsible to their populations simply because they hold periodic elections which are by and large ‘free and fair’. Governments in the US or Canada, in Britain or in Germany, are responsible to their citizens because they exist within a dense matrix of law governed institutions and practices which ensure that the state protects most of its citizens, most of the time, from arbitrary acts of violence and injustice at the hands of public officials, criminals, local businessmen, power-brokers, or incipient or emergent oligarchs of various kinds.

This kind of democracy rests upon a strong civil society of trade unions, employers’ organisations, professional associations, think tanks, pressure groups, political parties, neighbourhood organisations, and clubs and societies of all kinds; it exists in the context of a widely practised freedom of speech, of publication, of assembly, and of organization. It is these freedoms, which restrict the inevitable tendency of public officials to act arbitrarily and even corruptly. It is these freedoms that make it much less likely that policemen will brutalise or kill prisoners or citizens with impunity. Indeed, it is the exercise of these freedoms, which perpetually constrict the, perhaps inevitable tendency, of a culture of impunity to arise among people and institutions capable of exercising power over us.

These freedoms and practices are the bedrock upon which free and fair elections take place and in which governments, ministers, and public officials are held to account in the law courts, in tribunals of inquiry, in the newspapers, in the broadcast media, and on the Internet.

It appears to be the case that capitalism, the full development of capitalism, is a necessary condition for the development of democracy. Evidently, capitalism is not a sufficient condition, but it is glaringly obvious, that this kind of dense matrix of law-governed institutions and freedoms, surmounted, or crowned, by elected governments, have only developed within the context of highly developed capitalist economies.

Consequently, there is something irretrievably absurd about the angst expressed by the NATO powers about fraudulent elections in Afghanistan. In the absence of law-governed institutions, in the absence of a vibrant civil society, there cannot be ‘free and fair elections’. Public officials cannot be held to account in a society in which power is wielded by patriarchal cliques, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and region by region. There can be no protection for individual citizens if access to ‘justice’ is handed out on the basis of gender, clan, ethnicity, or merely personal connections. In such a situation elections are merely a cosmetic exercise in which intrinsically corrupt and anti-democratic practices are ratified by the powers that be.

Consequently, it is only the building of effective institutions, it is only the construction of a state whose writ runs throughout the country, it is only the creation of law courts who act without fear or favour, it is only the development of citizens capable of fighting for their rights, and of sustaining them when they’ve won them, that will pave the way for real elections. This means that building roads, airports, power stations and schools must take precedence over everything else. Without breaking up the isolation and ignorance of the citizens – without breaking up their dependence on the power of parochial patriarchs and local potentates – democracy cannot be built. Free and fair elections will not take place in Afghanistan unless the NATO powers make the material development of the country, the development of its infrastructure, and the development of its institutions their principal war aim.