The global Occupy movement sparked by Occupy Wall Street has mobilised tens of thousands of people angered at the actions of the big corporations, banks and financial institutions. Protesters rightly hit out at government bailouts of the banks and the close relationships between politicians and big business, while leaving the majority — the “99%” — to pay the price through austerity and attacks on their rights.
Despite the movement’s overwhelmingly anti-capitalist thrust, on its margins are a number of organisations peddling conspiracy theories and right-wing ideas. In the United States, these include supporters of the right-wing libertarian Ron Paul, the far-right cult led by Lyndon LaRouche and even, according to some reprts, the US Nazi Party. In Australia, supporters of the far-right Citizens Electoral Council have also been circulating their material.
In both countries, people influenced by Zeitgeist films and its theories are also present. While apparently more benign than the groups mentioned above, the ideas about a conspiracy of a small cabal of “international bankers” popularised byZeitgeist share much in common with the far right, as the following 2010 article from Scottish Socialist Youth explains.
[Another extensive expose of the Zeitgeist films and their far-right basis is available from Third Estate.]
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By Jack Ferguson
June 23, 2010 — Scottish Socialist Youth — If you’re the kind of person who knows there’s a lot of problems in our society, and you’re looking for solutions for what to do about it, there’s a good chance you’ve found yourself here on our blog.
There’s also a good chance you might have come across something called the Zeitgeist Movement. If you have, and you’re attracted to the ideas it puts forward, this article is our attempt to argue that Zeitgeist offers no real solutions to the economic and ecological crises that human civilisation is facing. In fact, quite the opposite: instead of explaining to people how we can change our society for the better, many of the ideas put forward in the Zeitgeist films have their origins in far-right and racist groups, and they’re ideas which are both crazy and useless.
The reason we’re doing this is because we know that Zeitgeist has been really influential on thousands of people who’ve seen it online, and because we think that is potentially really damaging to the attempts (which we’re part of) to build a mass movement capable of bringing fundamental change to the world. Zeitgeist deliberately tries to pitch itself as an appeal to people who have a basically left-wing outlook, but the ideas it puts forward about our world as it is just now are not left wing at all.
Zeitgeist got started when a man called Peter Joseph (this apparently isn’t his real or full name, as he conceals his real identity) released a documentary called, amazingly enough, Zeitgeist (which is German for “spirit of the times”) in 2007. This film was stuck up on Google video, and quickly got loads of views. This was then followed by a sequel, Zeitgeist Addendum, the following year.
The first film is an amalgamation of conspiracy theories: first of all about religion, making all kinds of claims about the origins of Christianity; then a large middle section about 9/11, asserting that there were no terror attacks and they were in fact carried out by the US government. The final section is probably the most important for us to examine as socialists, because it’s about money and finance. It argues that the world is dominated by a small elite who operate through control of international finance, the media and education. This elite deliberately enslaves the rest of the world by keeping us permanently in debt to the banks by the way they operate the money system.
The second film then goes on to build on these economic themes, and argues for an alternative: eliminating the profit system and creating what they call a “Resource Based Economy”, in which everyone in the world has access to what they need to survive for free by use of advanced technology. In many ways this society they describe is what socialism or communism would really be like in the future. The problem is that Zeitgeist specifically describes itself as a non-political movement, and offers no real plans for how to create the society. However, in the absence of actually describing itself as left wing or right wing, Zeitgeist has taken on a lot of ideas from some very dodgy sources.
Racism, anti-Semitism and the modern world
To understand where some of the ideas in Zeitgeist come from, we need to have a look first at their history.
From the 15-16th centuries onwards, the world began to be rapidly transformed by the technological and social advances that allowed European peoples to expand around the world and create colonies and empires. Explorers from European powers like Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and England began to move into Africa, the Americas and Asia. Through the slave trade and the exploitation of mines and plantations in these new colonies, European traders became rich.
Following this, the newly enriched classes began to use their money to kickstart the industrial revolution in Europe. They also grew tired of the fact that in European societies power was still held by people who were born into the aristocracy, when they were rich and felt they should also be powerful. This led to revolutions in France and the US, and the beginning of the modern world. Over the course of the 18th-19th centuries, the pace of change increased rapidly, with huge numbers of people leaving the land and farm work to move to massive new cities and work in the factories. Traditional sources of authority and power were undermined, and many people were left confused and angered by a world that they didn’t recognise any more.
The 19th century saw the development of a mass socialist movement, as working-class people began to realise that if economic and political power was taken out of the hands of the capitalists then society could be run for the benefit of all.
But other groups, particularly middle-class people who had no attraction to the ideas of socialism, began to seek other explanations for why the world had changed and what to do about it. Many of these people felt that they didn’t have a place in modern society, but they also didn’t want to go back to medieval times. Unable to see the reality that the world had been changed by huge economic and social forces beyond the control of any individual, they came to blame what was wrong in society on some kind of small secret elite who were controlling things for their own benefit.
People talked about secret societies like the Illuminati or the Freemasons dominating politics and government from behind the scenes. Crucially, these ideas were tied into the idea, which was hugely powerful in the late 19th and early 20th century, that the world was fundamentally divided along racial lines. Many of these people believed there was a plot to undermine the power and dominance of “the white race”.
Racism is a set of ideas that takes older prejudices, and systematically makes them into a worldview. Contrary to what most folk think, it emerged specifically in the modern world, as a way of explaining and understanding what was happening as global society began to rapidly change. Most racialised views of different peoples made their victims out to be inferior, such as the claim black people are stupid and lazy for example.
But Jews had a long history in Christian thought as being thought of as demonic enemies. They were blamed for the killing of Jesus, and in the medieval world were regarded as clever and dangerous because they took part in trade and money lending. In the modern world Jews came to be understood by many people as some kind of absolutely monstrous “Other”, a huge evil threat. This was of course total nonsense, but it was a useful idea for those who couldn’t face the reality of what was going on in capitalist society, and for those in power who didn’t want people to see that reality.
Anti-Semitic ideas became to be encapsulated in the idea that there was a world Jewish conspiracy, which aimed to establish a global government under their control. They would do this by their international control of banks and money, as well as control of the media and education.
These ideas came together in a book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This was an anti-Semitic forgery put together in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, which claimed to be documents of meetings and plans of the Jewish elite to dominate the world. These documents were circulated around the world, and became particularly important after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Many, who were fooled into thinking the Protocols were real, used them as evidence that the revolution was part of the Jewish conspiracy, and that the Bolsheviks aimed to advance it. This was a huge part of why Hitler hated socialists and communists so much. But the same ideas also had massive circulation in the leading government and powerful circles of US politics, and were argued by many right wing US congressmen and other political figures.
If it has ever confused you why right-wing conspiracy nutters say they hate banks and big business, and then go on to say they hate communists and socialists who run the world, this is why. For them, communism and socialism are part of a wider conspiracy by a tiny elite to control the world. The aim of this group, they think, is to create a one world government. Whether they talk about Jews openly, or whether they restrict what they’re saying to names like “international bankers”, the origins of this idea go back to the Protocols and the mad ideas of 19th century anti-Semites.
The Protocols are a straight-up work of fiction. But the ideas they put forward have surfaced again and again. Since World War II it’s been increasingly difficult for racist groups to openly advocate anti-Semitism, because these ideas saw their ultimate expression in the slaughter of the Holocaust. Even before this, many didn’t talk openly about Jews, but instead about “international bankers”, the “secret cabal” who ran the world.
The problem with all this for socialists is obvious: financial capitalists really do hold a huge amount of power and influence over government policies, and the international ruling class does coordinate its actions secretly and conspiratorially to make sure that capitalism keeps working and that profits are maximised.
However, these things aren’t the result of a plot of a small group of evil men. The fact is that capitalism is a self-sustaining economic system with a life of its own. It doesn’t really matter who is at the top as long as somebody is. People find it hard to grasp the reality of the way our economic and social system works, because it’s complex and hard to understand. Put simply, capitalists don’t want to just get rich and sit back. They want to find ways they can invest profits to create more profits and keep the economy growing. That’s the driving force, not the evil desires of a small group of men. But it’s hard to get your head round that, and many people find it much easier to blame an identifiable group they can easily conceptualise, like Jews.
The 19th century German socialist August Bebel once said that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools” because it tried to understand the causes of real problems resulting from capitalism, and instead blamed them on Jews. Throughout the 20th century, many right wingers began to see the dominance of banks and financial capital as evidence of a Jewish conspiracy. For them, this was evidence of the traditional prejudice that Jews were evil, manipulative money lenders bent on power and control.
The real reason that finance has become more and more dominant is that it’s increasingly difficult for capitalists to invest their money in something that produces stuff (like a factory) and make their money back, because after 200-odd years of capitalism the world is full of factories and stuff — so it’s harder and harder to make new products, like cars or furniture or tools say, and make a profit from it. So instead capitalists put more of their money into banks, financial investments etc. There’s no secret to it — it’s just about making money, and what’s the best way to go about it.
Zeitgeist and anti-Semitic ideas
In a speech on youtube, Peter Joseph says that:
If I find someone who’s in the KKK who has a great perspective on global finance, I’m not going to dismiss them just because they’re a racist and a bigot, I’m going to read what it is. I don’t dismiss anybody because of their beliefs because I understand that beliefs are a product of cultural conditioning.
I find this particular quote very revealing, because it’s absolutely clear that many of the conspiracy ideas put forward in the first film do ultimately derive from the far right and anti-Semitism. Contrary to what Peter thinks, it’s very hard to take these ideas in isolation from the overarching worldview they’re actually part of.
Zeitgeist argues that banks create fictional money in order to keep us all in debt and to allow them to manipulate the economy for their own secretive control. This is at heart a restatement of the idea that there is a group of manipulative money lenders running the world. While Zeitgeist calls this group “international bankers”, the original understanding was, of course, that these people were the Jews.
I’m sure that defenders of the film would argue that they are not anti-Semites, and that the film at no point names “the Jews” as responsible for the issues they raise, which is true. However, this defence falls down when you look at some of the people the film quotes prominently and approvingly. Several figures from the early 20th century are quoted for what they have to say about “international bankers”. These people were out and out racists, and we should have no doubt about who they mean when they talk about “international bankers”.
A good example of this is Louis McFadden, a racist US congressman from 1915-23. He’s quoted at length in Zeitgeist, with his claims that “A world banking system was being set up here … a superstate controlled by international bankers acting together to enslave the world for their own pleasure…” A quote of his they don’t use “in the United States today, the Gentiles have the slips of paper while the Jews have the lawful money”. He was absolutely a product of his time, the height of scientifically and politically accepted racism, and his economic views can’t be separated from his views about Jews.
What Zeitgeist doesn’t tell you is that money is just a representation of the value created by the people that do the work in an economy. Wealth comes originally from human labour. At your work, the work you do for a part of your day makes the boss enough money to pay your wages, and the rest becomes profits. But capitalism wants to use this money to invest and make more money. The state and its economic policy isn’t a conspiracy to make a few people richer, but instead it tries to create the conditions to allow more profit to be extracted and invested. This is a part of the system we live under, and isn’t to do with a few evil individuals running things for their own benefit. In a system like ours, there will always be people at the top administering things. The point is that the system needs to be changed.
Traditional anti-Semitic accusations are given new life, this time again blamed on “international bankers” in other parts of the film as well. A prominent claim in the Protocols is that Jews deliberately start wars for their own profit. In the film, it’s argued that throughout the 20th century the US has used faked incidents, or deliberate provocations to generate excuses to enter wars, the latest being, it claims, 9/11. Now of course, there is a grain of truth in this. Some of the incidents the film talks about, like the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was used as a pretext for the US to enter fully into the Vietnam War, was faked. But the film then goes on to claim that the US never intended to win the war in Vietnam, its sole interest being in the continuation of the war for profit. While wars do of course generate a lot of profit for manufacturers of weapons and war materials, the idea that the huge effort the US put into to trying to keep its own puppets in power in Vietnam was never intended to win is a joke.
‘One world government’
However, these views of war fit in with what Peter Joseph thinks the ultimate aim of the elite is: a one world government. This is a time-honoured phantom fear of the conspiracy far right, that in fact all governments in the world are being controlled by a shadowy elite behind the scenes. The film argues that the Cold War was a distraction, and that the “international bankers” controlled both sides (reinventing the old myth that the Russian Revolution was just part of a Jewish plot for global domination). But in a world where China and Russia have made huge steps to build their own geopolitical power throughout Asia, and where countries like Brazil, Turkey, Iran and Venezuela are all actively engaged in trying to build their own international power at the expense of the US, the idea that we are headed for a global government any time soon is laughable. It is a crazy fantasy that can only be believed if you accept false evidence.
The film also talks about control of education and the media to keep people stupid and easily manipulated. Again, there’s clearly a grain of truth in this, but when coupled with a conspiracy worldview it becomes a re-telling of one of the most powerful anti-Semitic myths: that the Jews control the media, and fill our heads with propaganda.
The point here is that Zeitgeist deals with issues that have some substance to them. If you follow many leading conspiracy theorists, people like Alex Jones for example, it’s often the case that they identify things that have some reality to them. But because they can’t get their heads round the difficult concepts of what’s really going on in a complex, unpredictable global social and economic system, they look for individuals or groups to blame. They try to give the people responsible a face.
Peter Joseph, in making the first Zeitgeist film, has clearly used as much of his source material these kinds of people, and fails to identify the real reasons for the problems that the human race faces. But what’s worrying about this is that it’s packaged in a way to make it look left wing, to appeal to people who are looking for genuine solutions to capitalism and its problems. Instead of finding them, those attracted to Zeitgeist are actually being sold ideas that originate in racism and all the lies and myths of anti-Semitism.
The risks of this are there for all to see if you look back at the history of fascism. Mussolini and Oswald Mosley, who founded the British Union of Fascists, both started out involved with the left. However, they were later to move away from this and become fascists. Without clear understanding of what capitalism is and what it does, it’s easy to fall back on simpler ideas that blame the wrong people. A case in point is US conspiracy theorist and far rightist Lyndon LaRouche, who also is quoted approvingly in Zeitgeist.
LaRouche is a prolific writer and several times candidate for president of the US. He’s also the leader of a violent cult which has been implicated in several deaths of people who got involved with it. Like fascists before him, LaRouche started out involved with the left, but became more and more right wing as the years went by, and now peddles anti-Semitic lies, as well as approvingly quoting Saddam Hussein in his publications. One case of how dangerous his movement can be is the mysterious death of Jeremiah Duggan who got involved, but at a conference revealed himself to be Jewish. After a panicked phone call to his mum, he was found dead the next morning. The LaRouchites claim he committed suicide.
Now to be clear, I’m not claiming that the Zeitgeist movement has killed people, or that Peter Joseph is a Hitler in waiting. What I’m saying is that if you’re looking to do something about changing society, starting off with folk who think quoting fascists, racists and anti-Semites as part of their case isn’t the way to go.
Zeitgeist 2: Star Trek solutions
If you try and engage Zeitgeist activists about these issues, in all likelihood they will say something along the lines of “Well, we don’t promote the first film anymore, we’ve moved on to new things”. Sometime between the making of the first and second films, Peter Joseph came into contact with Jacques Fresco, a designer and engineer who has a series of plans for improving society that he calls the Venus Project. Zeitgeist now describes itself as “the activist wing of the Venus Project”. Privately, some are trying to distance themselves from some of the material in the first film, but officially it is still promoted on the main page when you google Zeitgeist, and remains most people’s introduction to the movement.
The Venus Project advocates what it calls a “resource-based economy”, arguing that there are enough resources in the world to provide everyone with a decent standard of living. The problem they argue is that capitalism deliberately makes resources scarce in order to make a profit. So far this is definitely something socialists could agree with. The project goes on to present a whole series of exciting looking sci-fi style drawings of what the high-tech future they propose will look like, which are strangely retro and remind you of concept art for 60s sci-fi shows.
I absolutely support the idea of a society with no money where all your basic needs are met for free. That’s the future I’m fighting for. But the way that we go about this in Scottish Socialist Youth (SSY) and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) is to try and build change in the here and now, trying to win people to socialist ideas by making concrete changes to peoples lives now. If I were to go out on the street today and start handing out leaflets that said, “We want to abolish money and make everything free”, then most people would dismiss us as crazy.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to just wish a new society into existence; it has to be built patiently by the collective cooperation and work of masses of people.
The Zeitgeist movement don’t seem to agree. It argues that all our problems can be solved by scientists, and explicitly say it rejects politics or political movements. In effect what the Zeitgeist movement argues for is a technocracy, at least at first. That means that what happens in society will be determined by a scientific elite. Jacques Fresco argues that politicians now are incapable of implementing solutions because they don’t have the right expertise and only say what they think will get them elected. But the solution to this isn’t a society run by “experts”, but the implementation of mass democracy, and the opening up of education and the media to allow people to develop themselves. I think this is probably what Zeitgeist members would eventually like to see, but the point is, to make it possible it’s necessary to struggle and win what we can.
This isn’t to say that many of the technologies advocated by the Venus Project/Zeitgeist couldn’t play a really important role in a better society. But in focusing just on technological changes, they ignore that technology is a part of society, not the root of it. If all our problems could be solved with technology, then the ancient Egyptians would have developed steam engines. They had all the knowledge necessary to do so, but they didn’t because their society was based on slavery, and as long as there were plenty of slaves and peasants to do the work, who needed steam power? More to the point, their kind of society wasn’t expanding economically in the same way capitalism does, so there was no need for a technology capable of unleashing an industrial revolution. So nobody ever followed through the theoretical knowledge into practice. Steam engines were invented when human society was ready to use them and needed them.
Similarly today, we won’t convert our energy supply to renewables or start using environmentally friendly technology exclusively, because our society is still based on economic growth and making money. For these technologies to be part of the solution, they need to be accompanied by socioeconomic changes to the way the world works, and to do that we need to politically defeat the ruling class.
The politics that Zeitgeist does promote are essentially that you boycott aspects of society they don’t like: don’t open an account with the the three biggest banks in the US (but implying that an account with another bank is in some way better?) and boycott energy companies by taking your house off the grid, for example. What this ignores is that for working-class people forced to work long hours for low pay, putting a wind turbine in your garden just isn’t something they can afford in time or money. Boyotts are individual actions, whereas socialists argue for a collective response to social problems, where we struggle for the power to make solutions like renewable energy available for everyone.
Zeitgeist activists argue that they are just trying to “raise awareness” of the technical solutions available to our problems. But the fact is most people know on some instinctive level that things can be better than the way they are. They have a better understanding of power and the state than most Zeitgeist activists do. They know that if you start trying to live outside the money system and move past capitalism, then the capitalists will use their real power to try and stop you. They have money, legal authority and armed force. They’ve used all these things every time people have tried to move beyond capitalism, from the Russian Revolution to the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela today. That doesn’t mean we should give up, but it does mean we should be prepared for the very real fight we have on our hands with the people in power. “Raising awareness” will not be enough to win that fight.
Noam Chomsky has summed up the problems with Zeitgeist Addendum well when he says:
I don’t regard the Zeitgeist Movement as an activist movement. Rather, it seems to me a very passive movement that is misled by documents that have a very pleasant sound, but collapse on analysis. Among them is the idea that we should “stop supporting the system” and “not fight it”, that is, seek to change and overcome it. That means we should withdraw into passivity. Nothing could be more welcome to those in power. My feeling is that however sincere the leaders and participants may be, the movement is seriously misguided. It is not leading towards change, but is undermining it by encouraging passivity and withdrawal from engagement, and offering a false sense that some real alternative is being proposed, except in terms so vague and divorced from reality as to be virtually meaningless.
Peter Joseph has expressed scepticism about the reality of climate change, arguing that Zeitgeist should not base its arguments on something that “might not be true”. If anything undermines its claim to be based on scientific ideas it’s this. But it does fit in with the relationship that Zeitgeist activists maintain with other conspiracy groups maintain like We Are Change. To most folk the idea that the entire scientific community is engaged in a gigantic fraud to lie about the climate is madness, but it seems plausible if you already believe that the US government carried out 9/11 and the world is run by “international bankers”.
The opening section of the first film, about the use of earlier myths by Christianity to create a fictional story of a historical Jesus as fact, is not that important to the political implications of the movement as a whole. But it does show up how the ideas of Zeitgeist are a mixed up mishmash of stuff from all over the place, as it’s riddled with inaccuracies about ancient religions, such as claiming the Egyptian God Horus was a Sun God, born of a Virgin on December 25 (each one of these claims is just blatantly not true).
And if all of the above hasn’t concinved you that Zeitgeist is a load of pish, then consider this. It has attracted the endorsement of someone who has made himself a bit of a laughing stock by his increasingly outlandish public claims, and who is a damaged product of the British celebrity circuit. I’m talking of course about … Robbie Williams!