Sunday, December 7, 2008
Future al Fresco, or the House of Cards that Jacque built
Anyone watching the online documentary film Zeitgeist (2007) would be advised to borrow Occam's razor for some editorial cutting. A well-made and interesting film, Zeitgeist nonetheless makes history more mysterious than it needs to be. You can explain what goes on in capitalism quite easily without making a giant secret conspiracy of it. So, when the sequel, Zeitgeist Addendum, came out in October of this year, socialists were expecting more conspiracy stuff and dodgy bank-credit economics.
Addendum turns out to be a surprise. To be sure, it does reiterate the dodgy economics, overlooking the fact that when banks do try to create money out of nothing, they crash and burn, as has been happening recently. But then the film gets really interesting, because it proposes, as an alternative to capitalism, a global resource-based society of common ownership, without governments, hierarchies, markets, trading or money. Were the makers explicitly to use the term 'world socialism' most socialists would scarcely blink.
Not that there's any such reference, or indication of Marxian antecedents. Clearly the intention is to avoid triggering any knee-jerk reflexes from audiences schooled in the evils of soviet 'socialism'. Instead, they're offered the sci-fi version, with supersonic mag-lev trains, floating intelligent cities, nanotechnology and megamachines. The future is bigger, better and brighter, even if it does look a bit like Thunderbirds Are Go. The point being drummed in is that it's steam-age capitalism that's holding back technology, as well as creating a social and environmental hell-hole. Without capitalism, we can reach for the stars.
This is the Venus Project, futuristic creation of Jacque Fresco, engineer, architect and designer, a man on a laudable mission to persuade the world to ditch capitalism and create a practical cooperative alternative. For socialists to come across such a well-worked model which accords so closely with their own is a rare thing, so it seems almost churlish to suggest that the technology may be a bit over-done. It's not only that this kind of chrome-plated futurism looks paradoxically dated, like rocket ship stories of the 1950's, or that it may be off-putting to those yearning for William Morris-like rural idylls. More troublesome is the heavy emphasis placed on science and technology as the source of progress, for instance, as here: "The application of scientific principles… accounts for every single advance that has improved people's lives" (Designing the Future, at www.venusproject.com). Trust a techie to say that. But what about the role of workers, in unions or campaign groups, to raise wages and working conditions, or reduce the working day, or demand civil rights? Did technology have anything to do with recognition of race or gender equality, or gay liberation, or legislation against slavery or child-labour? Instead of recognising that workers won those rights by organised force, Fresco seems to think all improvements in civil rights were 'privileges' which have been 'granted' by the ruling elite (p.4).
This gives a clue to Fresco's attitude to 'responsibility' and 'democracy'. Technology, he thinks, will obviate the need for these. Laws against drink-driving, for example, can be abolished if cars drive themselves. True enough. But can one find a technological fix for every situation requiring humans to have an awareness of their own social responsibility, and even if we could, would we want to? Responsibility is not a burden, after all, it is empowerment, it is personal growth. Make humans responsible, and they become mature adults. Instead, Fresco would let this human quality atrophy.
Similarly, Fresco seems wedded to the strange idea that humans don't want to make decisions. Thus he envisages a 'global neural network' that does our thinking for us, a marriage of automation and cybernetic intelligence called 'cybernation'. This column has recently referred to self-adjusting production systems (Sept 08), but running an entire social system that way is surely a leap too far. In answer to the question: Who makes the decisions in a resource-based economy? Fresco gives the bizarre response: No one does. Apparently the cybernation system will decide what we want to produce, as well as how to produce it, because we humans just aren't up to the job.
What emerges sounds less like a socialist society of responsible adults and more like a Tracey Island playground for hedonistic infants with no tough decisions to make and no responsibilities to shoulder. Socialists place participatory democracy at the very core of our social model, irrespective of the technology. For Fresco, it seems to be the other way round. In answer to the question, would there be a government? Fresco answers that there would be a transitional administration of expert technicians, before the process of 'cybernation' is complete. He adds that "They will not dictate the policies or have any more advantage than other people." But how does he know that? What mechanisms would prevent a technocracy maintaining power in perpetuity? Fresco is leaving the matter to trust. Worse still, in avoiding the whole issue of democratic organisation and class action, Fresco has no way to address the even more pressing question, how to overcome the certain opposition of the ruling class. So he dodges it by arguing that there will be no need to, since capitalism will collapse of its own accord. Leaving aside the extreme improbability of this, it begs the question: what should we do then, while we're waiting for that to happen? Spread the ideas perhaps, as socialists advocate? Apparently not! "True social change is not brought about by men and women of reason and good will on a personal level. The notion that one can sit and talk to individuals and alter their values is highly improbable" (www.venusproject. com/intro_main /essay.htm). Ever the technophile, Fresco has his eye on something more worthy of an engineer, the building of an experimental city in South America, in order to show his society in action. Thus, we have a future, non-market, non-money society with no human decision-making, existing as a sealed bubble inside capitalism, and on a continent famous for its CIA-backed counter-revolutionary guerrilla forces. Well, lots of luck, but this ain't a horse we would back.
Socialists rarely have anything good to say about post-modernism, but Fresco's starry-eyed fixation with technology reminds us what was wrong with modernity in the first place. It was enlightenment thinking gone light-headed, before the hangover set in and we realised that, actually, science can't save us from ourselves, in fact science and technology have got bugger all to do with it. Mass consciousness and democratic organisation are what it takes, not fantastical gadgets and optimistic faith in the imminent and obliging demise of capitalism. If you're wrong about that, you've got nothing. Without class action, there's no foundation, no plan, no clear road. It's a house of cards floating in the air.
Fresco and his friends deserve huge credit for the work they have done in setting out a vision of post-capitalist common ownership, and if nothing else, the Venus Project should remind us that such ideas are not unique to us. But visions born of conspiracy theories tend to preclude the idea of democratic mass action, and that is a weakness. For socialists, not only is mass action possible, it is essential. Capitalism will not collapse. It has to be pulled down. And machines won't do that for us.