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Pathfinders:The Machine inside the Ghost

The Machine inside the Ghost

Enthusiasm continues apace for the online movie-cum-movement phenomenon Zeitgeist, with its articulate, clean-cut and photogenic presenter Peter Joseph touring even harder than Bob Dylan, it seems, to bring word to the world about the ‘resource-based economy’ idea which sounds so new to everyone else and so uncannily like socialism to us. Socialists should applaud and encourage the efforts of Peter Joseph and Zeitgeist activists everywhere to popularise the ideas of non-market production for use, especially because anti-socialists everywhere will do their best to discredit them with any damn-fool argument they can think of.

That’s not to say that there aren’t issues of disagreement, of course. There is a strange emphasis on the technological aspects of the case for a post-capitalist future and proportionally little to say on the role of human activity and decision-making. It’s clear from recent lectures by Peter Joseph (‘Where are we now?’ et al, 2009, YouTube), that far from being merely a matter of emphasis, this bespeaks a quite different perspective on history:

“I think it is safe to say ... Technology is the fundamental catalyst for progress and change. It is by far the primary factor driving the development of human civilisation not only in the facilitation of achieving specific ends but also in the more subtle manifestation of our belief systems, philosophy, frames of reference and how we interpret the world around us.”

It is not safe to say any such thing. If technology was the fundamental catalyst for change then Ancient Greece would have had steam locomotives and China would have ruled the world since the Renaissance. The problem for the ‘technologist’ is to explain why these things didn’t happen.

Socialists are materialists, and materialists look at history as a process of general underlying ‘tectonic’ shifts in material conditions which give rise to often drastic changes, growths or collapses of superstructures built on them, for example, political, social, cultural and technological outgrowths. In this view, technology doesn’t determine change but is both determined by and proactive on underlying material conditions.

In giving technology this unique driving power, Zeitgeist risks overlooking other motors of history, not least the importance of human organisation itself. “Everything in regard to social organisation is a technical process” says Peter Joseph, adding for emphasis: “Society is a technical creation. Science and tech is the overarching element that governs the entire mechanism of social organisation.” From this the conclusion automatically follows that “Those who study those attributes should be given, not control, but the forefront of participation.”

He pours scorn on those ‘paranoid’ types who would fear abuse of power by this implied class of technocrats, asking “What would be their incentive?” Well, who knows? What would be the incentive for crime? We don’t know that either, but that’s not to offer a cast-iron guarantee that there wouldn’t be any. Given the Zeitgeist apparent indifference to human self-determination as a key factor in society and given also a hundred centuries of brutal oppression by power-mad elites who monopolised knowledge among other things, is it really so unreasonable to feel disquiet over this? While the technicians are minding the machines, who's minding the technicians?

The emphasis on technology develops into a more serious problem however, and one that needs addressing now.  Zeitgeist argues that capitalism is opposed to technological progress, hence the need to abolish it. To take one example, Peter Joseph uncritically repeats the claims of the popular film Who Killed the Electric Car?(2006). This film argues that in the 1990s there was a huge potential American market for electric vehicles (EVs) but that the carmakers and government-backed oil industry deliberately sabotaged it. The problem with the film is that it is the arguments of General Motors (GM), not the pro-EV lobby, which are being borne out by events. Market demand, production costs, technology and the supplies and fuelling infrastructure really were not viable in 1996, and we know that because they are still not ready today (see for instance ‘Drivers resist the electric switch’, Guardian, 16 January). Even as the dust settles over the electric car ‘scandal’ there is a raft of new EV products on the market from GM competitors and from GM itself. Even if GM really were as dumb and parochial as the conspiracy-buffs like to think, the Japanese and the Indians certainly weren’t. The market is maturing. Capitalism is working in just the way that Zeitgeist says that it can’t. It’s changing.

All that’s a matter for capitalism and car nuts, and of no interest to socialists. But they are of huge interest to Zeitgeist, appearing as they do to back up the central argument that capitalism relies on inefficiency and outmoded technology.

This proposition is so demonstrably wrong as scarcely to be worth spelling out. Incredibly, Peter Joseph implies that capitalism will never find a cure for cancer because it will undermine cancer industry profits, and ditto for cheap solar panelling and the power industry. Logically, if capitalism was so anti-progress there would never have been any technology in the first place, nor any industrial revolution. To attack its ‘inability’ to promote technology is to attack it not at its weakest but at its strongest point. Alarmingly, Zeitgeist is choosing precisely the worst ground for its battle-line.

In fact, capitalism has cured or eradicated plague, typhus, syphilis, cholera, polio and smallpox, regardless of the money already being made in treating those diseases. It abolished steam power, horse power and gas light despite its huge investment in those infrastructures. Its achievements cannot and should not be denied unless one wants to look ridiculous. Indeed its greatest achievement is its potential undoing: it has embraced technological progress so successfully that productive processes now make it entirely feasible to move beyond capitalism altogether. 

Workers need to know their enemy, not underestimate or misunderstand its methods. Most of the problems humans have are not caused by lack of technology, but lack of equal access to resources. Millions die because they can’t afford food or clean water or basic cheap medicines. War, violence and oppression are not technological problems, they exist because there are power elites who get their power from private property we humans should not allow anyone to own in the first place. These are the real weaknesses of capitalism, the ones which will not go away, the ones Zeitgeist really ought to be attacking instead of, like EV-nuts, bewailing its ‘failure’ to deliver the latest tech.

It’s possible that Zeitgeist are reluctant to confront the reality of ruling class power, in case the merest hint of conflict causes the enthusiasm to evaporate and the followers to melt away. But we’re not making the class war up, and we can’t wish it away: “There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. (Warren) Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning” (New York Times, 26 November, 2006). Tiananmen Square students innocently thought they could win freedom by pushing flowers into gun barrels. In their zeal to promote a vision of a happy-tech cyber-future, the Venus visionaries are tip-toeing on a dangerous edge. In replacing class struggle with a faith in machines, Zeitgeist has created a spectre which will return to haunt them.