Sunday, March 17, 2013

Z-Day at South Bank University

To South Bank University, to a meeting of the London Futurists group, held in conjunction with the Zeitgeist Movement and branded as Z-Day. I went with some trepidation, because pretty much all I knew about the Zeitgeist Movement came from this article, which made them sound like conspiracy nutters. I expected a cross between the 9/11 TruthMovement and the School of Economic Science.

In fact they turned out to be nice, earnest young people who were genuinely friendly and appeared to be open to learning from others. One or two had piercings and tattoos, but most looked well scrubbed and neat. The entrance hall had a little stall with the Zeitgeist movie on DVD and some pamphlets, and there were posters up for the Venus Project, a detailed blueprint for a high-tech sustainable world with which the Zeitgeist Movement is sort of associated. There was a very faint air of creepy cultishness in the way that some of the material looked, but perhaps that's inevitable when an unfamiliar organisation with a non-identifiable house style wants to address matters of seriousness. I know what it is supposed to look like when Greenpeace or FoE talk about climate change, and I'm just not familiar with the way that the Zeigeist Movement does this. There was no sign of any conspiracy theory material, no references to Lyndon LaRouche, no Protocols or anything like that. 

The lecture theatre was full. There was some cheesy intro music and a short video clip, and then we were welcomed by James Phillips, a  young Zeitgeister. He explained (a bit loosely, and without proper timings) how the day would work, and I was genuinely cheered to hear who the other speakers were – decent types from Positive Money, the Equality Trust, and so on. If they were involved it couldn't be all bad, could it?

And it wasn't. The Zeitgeister gave an earnest PowerPoint presentation about what was wrong with the world (inequality, depletion of resources, loss of biodiversity, climate change) that was hard to disagree with. Whereas my feeling at the last London Futurists meeting was that I had fallen among people with a radically different worldview, I could see that with the Zeitgeisters I was at least in the same moral universe. We cared about the same things. If the movement is about antisemitic conspiracy theories, it didn't show.

Sadly the Zeitgeisters ideas about how to fix what is wrong seems much less impressive. It's a good thing that they don't reject technology. There are greens around who seem to think that if we only went back to some period before the fossil fuel age all would be well. The Zeitgeisters are at the other end of the spectrum. They think that advances in technology make it possible for us to live a life of abundance without wrecking the planet. They go all dewy-eyed over Maglev trains, twelve-storey aquaponic urban farms, geothermal energy and the internet of things. There is an almost touching naivety to the way that they seem to think that technology by itself will resolve and dissolve all of the conflicts within economy and science, if only it were adopted. All that is needed is for this to be explained thoroughly, and the blueprint spelled out in enough detail, and the good society will be upon us. They have an equally touching belief in the 'scientific method' as a way of dealing with conflicts, and they appear to have absolutely no awareness at all of any of the work in academic science studies about the limitations of this idealized view of science.

It was hard not to laugh when the nice young man put up pictures of the 'house of the future', which he explained would have a dome roof because science had proved that was the best shape, and harder still when he presented the 'city of the future' – the pictures looked uncannily like Ebenezer Howard's plans for garden cities. Now I've got a lot of time for Howard, who has generally been under-appreciated as an urban theorist, but this stuff is not new. The idea that better computers and networking technology will allow us to run a fabulous, resource based economy without scarcity or money isn't new either – perhaps someone should tell them about Stafford Beer and his attempts to do just that in Allende's Chile. (Having said that, it is amazing that the USSR probably ran its five-year plans and the administration system to deliver them with less processing power than my smartphone – would it have done better if it had had better computers?)

Not knowing about this history makes you look ridiculous. I think that futurologists should all have to study the 'history of the future' before they are allowed to use their crystal balls.

In fact, the whole Zeitgeist thing is strongly reminiscent of the C19th utopian socialists that Engels derided so successfully. If the Zeitgeisters have heard of Saint-Simon and the Comptean Positivists, or even the Owenists, they gave no sign of doing so, but they need to hear about them. They need to know that there have been movements before that have thought that technology has just reached the point at which it can deliver abundance without injury to the planet and in such a way that class conflict will become unnecessary. They need to know that these movements failed, dismally, and they need to have a good think about why. The idea that the world could be better run by a scientific elite of experts has an old provenance too, as is the notion that this is somehow 'apolitical'. In fact this thread runs through the philosophies of both Left and Right, particularly in Britain, where it was a component of both Fabianism and Moseley's Fascism. Come to think of it, the Zeitgeisters could profit from some time reading H.G. Wells' “The Shape of Things to Come”. Perhaps one of the reasons why some on the Left are so upset about the Zeitgeist Movement is that it reminds us that we've been steeped in this sort of thing ourselves, at least sometimes.

What the Zeitgeisters really need to understand is what Marx meant when he said that the relations of production could turn into fetters on the mode of production. It's a tricky phrase that sounds like jargon, but it's actually very important in explaining the current crisis of our economy and civilisation.

I'm not saying that the problem with their movement is that it lacks a correct Marxist perspective, or that they fail to understand the need for a revolutionary party to lead the workers in the overthrow of capitalism. But actually old Karl was thinking about exactly the same problems as them, and he had some profound insights. It's important to learn from the past if we want to avoid repeating its mistakes.

Z-Day was surprisingly enjoyable. The Zeitgeisters seem to be open to listening to others. There were great presentations by Ben Dyson from Positive Money, by London Futurists' own David Wood (available here), and Sean Blaine from the Equality Trust. There was a good session on Non-Violent Communication by Daren De Witt, and a surprisingly interesting discussion with the Moneyless Man, Mark Boyle, who came across as a really sincere latter-day Tolstoyan. Tolstoyans, Saint-Simonians, it really was a back to the future sort of day. If this lot were all dupes of the Zeitgeisters in lending them protective colouration as decent progressives instead of antisemitic conspiracy nuts then it was a trick well done. 

The one lame spot on the day's agenda (for me, anyway) was a short film and talk by John Webster, who claimed to have uncovered the secret legal fiction that underpinned all of state power and the capitalist relations of production (see this link for a flavour of the discussion).  This was the sort of thing that I had been expecting, Webster, who apparently won a prize at the Crystal Palace Film Festival  (yeah, me neither) seemed to think that once this secret was revealed no-one need ever be in debt, or be forced to submit to authority, ever again. Sadly the audience really seemed to like this dross, and there was a mind-numbing discussion on a point of detail with someone who appeared to be advocating the even more pointless 'Freemen'philosophy.

Maybe I've been successfully duped, but the Zeitgeisters did not seem like dangerous conspiracy nuts. They are not my people, and I don't think their approach will lead to anything, but I can't see any sign that they are harmful. 


AdamG said...

Thank you for the blog article on Z Day London 2013. I'd like to correct inaccuracies in the article, but these are too many for a blog comment. Perhaps people who want to find out what actually happened at the event would like to use this link to watch the recording of the live webcast?

Jeremy Green said...

Hi Adam, very kind of you to thank me when you think there are so many inaccuracies! Just goes to show that I'm right about Zeitgeisters being polite...but I would appreciate it if you could point out at least the major things that I got wrong. It feels to me like most of the blog post is about my impressions and reflections, and I can't see how they can be inaccurate. So tell me what I got wrong.

Thanks too for the webcast link - that's very helpful. Best wishes, Jeremy