Peter Joseph Indicts Capitalism
In his new book The New Human Rights Movement: Reinventing the Economy to End Oppression Peter Joseph has come a long way since his first Zeitgeist film in 2007 with its conspiracy theories and crude currency crankism (although he still adheres to a version of the ‘thin air’ theory of banking). Gone too are the technocratic views of his then mentor, Jacque Fresco.
He now realises that he is up against an entrenched class that is opposed to the sort of society he wants to see introduced, and unambiguously identifies the capitalist system of production for sale on a market with a view to profit as the root cause of the social ills, not just material but socio-psychological too, that afflict society today.
The first chapter, whether intentionally or not, is virtually a statement of the materialist conception of history. He defines a social system as ‘the means by which society organizes itself to facilitate survival, prosperity, and, ideally, peaceful coexistence’ and points out that ‘how a society organizes its resources, labor, production, and distribution is by far the most defining and influential feature of its culture.’ And ‘…it will be found that the most influential characteristic of a civilization is the kind of technological means it has and how it is applied. When very large changes in applied technology occur, human culture and behavior tend to change as well.’
Joseph describes capitalism as ‘a social system based on property, exchange, labor-for-income, competitive self-regulation, and the capacity to profit from scarcity and deprivation’ and sees it as the latest manifestation of hierarchical class society ushered in by the Neolithic Revolution that the practice of agriculture represented. Although he does write of an ‘ownership class’ contrasted to ‘the wage working majority’ and of ‘wage slavery’ and ‘the general economy slavery of the majority’, his emphasis is more on the rich contrasted to the poor.
Starting from the more common view of society as stratified into classes by wealth and income levels, he argues that the inequality of wealth, power and esteem built into capitalist society leads to the oppression of ‘the lower classes’ (his term) by ‘the upper class’ by inflicting on them worse health and earlier death. He describes this as ‘structural violence’, a ‘class war’ against them. Hence one of his indictments of capitalism:
‘Evidence shows … that social class and the inferior-superior relationship inherent in it is simply bad for social and personal health. Hence capitalism, which is the embodiment of this market-created hierarchy, is really a poisonous social construct’ (p. 206).
This is certainly a feature of capitalism, in fact of all class societies, but his ‘class war’ is not the same as the ‘class struggle’ that Marxists see as taking place between classes defined by their relationship to the means of wealth production, in capitalism between the minority capitalist class who own and control them and the non-owning class forced by economic necessity to operate them for a wage or a salary less than the value of what they produce.
To see the upper class as oppressing the poor (as they in effect do, as Joseph argues) is not a complete picture, as it leaves out those who are neither capitalists nor poor (in the conventional sense), most workers in fact. They, too, suffer from capitalism and are economically exploited for surplus value, and also suffer discrimination when it comes to consumption even if not as much as the poor. Not, it needs to be added straightaway, out of any good will on the part of the capitalist class but because it is in their interest to have a relatively healthy and so more productive workforce.
But there is no need to get into a big argument about which – the lot of the poor or the exploitation of the producers? – is the worst aspect of capitalism. Peter Joseph is as much opposed to capitalism as Marxian socialists are.
He sees the way out, or, as he also puts it, humanity’s ‘next evolutionary step as an intelligent species’, as ‘an economic system that actually has no market’, a propertyless, marketless, moneyless world society of ‘sustainable abundance’:
‘… the end goal of achieving a truly sustainable, post-scarcity economy would logically be one that has no trade or money at all, but rather focuses on design and management procedures that have become democratic and made participatory’ (p. 295).
This is recognisably what we mean by ‘socialism’, although Joseph himself does not use this word to describe it, sticking to the confusing conventional view that ‘socialism’ means government intervention in the market economy.
‘There is,’ he points out, ‘no technical reason for any human being to starve, be without water, or exist in poverty as we know it.’ This is backed up by a technical appendix prepared by the Zeitgeist Movement which he founded and of which he is still the president (whatever that implies).
Because he shares the materialist analysis of social systems as having an economic basis, Joseph is fully aware that the social ills resulting from capitalism’s economic basis of inequality of wealth ownership and production for a market with a view to profit cannot be removed while that basis remains. The problems of public health and environmental degradation on which he concentrates but also others he mentions such as crime, violence and war are all symptoms of the system. ‘Society,’ he writes, ‘is constantly battling symptoms, not causes’, with the result that there is not much constructive or lasting that is achieved. Because these problems are structurally linked to the capitalist economic system, they cannot be solved within the system:
‘The negative forces preserving the status quo are not substantially affected by street protest, public outcry, media exposure of corruption, or other traditional methods. It is fruitless for us to demand an idealized or “more just” behaviors from our existing institutions, since they have been built around a value and incentive system that thrives on the very behaviors we wish to change. Only deep system changes will prove to have long-standing effects’ (p. 96).
Elsewhere, he describes these ‘deep system changes’ as ‘large and dramatic leaps’ and ‘a large, giant shift of our social system.’ In other words, what we are not afraid to call a social revolution, as a radical change in the basis of society.
But how is this to come about?
‘… even if only partial transitions were made toward the ideal goal expressed, it would still improve things. However, the more one examines the implication of these changes, the more it will become clear how they work against the current economic system’s incentives and structure. This means the ideal of a step-by-step transition (and improvement) is improbable’ (pp. 265-6).
Nor will it be handed down from above:
‘The change I speak of will not originate from existing authority but rather from the raw masses. As noted, those who reach high levels of power and opulence in the world are usually conditioned to favor the mechanisms of their reward. As such, it is up to the average majority to realize this change can only come from the ground up’ (p. 299).
He doesn’t spell out how such a movement is to win. In fact he seems to have studiously avoided discussing winning political control as a preliminary to changing the basis of society. He may well see a role for elections but, if he does, he doesn’t say so.
Joseph lists various transitional measures that could be taken once the radical change has ‘the overall sanction of society, meaning that the majority would seek these changes, with little political or establishment resistance.’ These include a universal basic income (to break the link between work done and consumption) and immediately making as many goods and services as possible free.
We cannot anticipate today what immediate measures would be implemented once a socialist majority was in a position to impose its will. That would depend on the exact circumstances and on the democratically-expressed preferences of those having to deal with the matter at the time. Joseph, however, extends the argument beyond this and says that the movement to establish a propertyless, marketless, moneyless society should put pressure on existing institutions to adopt such measures, even before a majority in favour of it exists:
‘Public appeals to directly reduce socio-economic inequality and stop environmental degradation are always going to go against the grain within a market system, which will resist every step. Regardless, we should constantly demand things such as Universal Basic Income, maximum wage and wealth caps per person, government subsidies to incentivize cooperative businesses rather than hierarchical ones, universal standardization of goods components by industry sector to reduce waste, and other socializing and income/wealth equalizing means, basic public health services, as common to Nordic countries, should also be pushed to ease social stress while larger strides are made. These are not solutions in and of themselves, but they will help’ (p.297).
His envisaging such a wish-list of desirable reforms is disappointing. While some of them, if implemented (indeed, if implementable under capitalism) might help mitigate things, there is danger in an anti-capitalism movement advocating them. We know, from the experience of the pre-WWI Social Democratic parties which claimed to be Marxist, that what happens when you try to combine advocating social revolution with reforms within capitalism is that you attract the support of those who want only those reforms; and in the end you become the prisoner of these non-revolutionary supporters and eventually the party becomes a simple, left-wing reformist party.
The strategy Joseph suggests here would likely have the same result. On the other hand, the other activity – surveying the planet’s and localities’ resources and drawing up detailed, technological plans on how to produce ‘sustainable abundance’ – that he suggests that the movement for the new society should do in the meantime while waiting to get majority supports is unobjectionable and, indeed, something to be encouraged.
Perhaps Joseph’s book will achieve the same sort of status as Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First- Century, David Graeber’s Debt and Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism. That would widen the debate considerably.