October 27, 2010

TZM: Recipe For Disaster?

This post is a response to Muertos' blog where he asserts that putting a Resource Based Economy into practice will ultimately lead to disaster. While I agree on some points I'm of the opinion that other arguments are irrelevant in the larger scheme of things and also I can't escape the notion that a portion of Muertos' article is based on projection and fear-mongering. He bases his claim on the works of author and professor James C. Scott, who wrote many books about political science and anthropology. The book 'Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,' is used to display the alleged inherent faults of a Resource Based Economy.

“[High modernism] is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. It originated, of course, in the West, as a by-product of unprecedented progress in science and technology.”

Muertos starts off with this quote from the book and says; 'This definition describes the Zeitgeist Movement/Venus Project perfectly.' No argument here. Professor Scott formulated it quite nicely. A RBE is in fact based on what scientific and technical progress can do and I find no fault in calling it 'high modernism.' (Perhaps an even better definition that applies here is trans-humanism.) You simply have to look at our current state of technology and it's remarkably easy to fathom what is possible these days. Durable types of energy are a scientific fact. Much of what a Resource Based Economy proposes is actually feasible with our current day technology. In turn that technology CAN create abundance and there's nothing unrealistic about this notion. The major obstacle at this point is simply the monetary system. We have the technology, we have the resources, but we don't have the money. The next obstacle is the human condition, because we are all conditioned to think in certain ways.

That also brings us to 'human nature' and the concept of 'nature vs nurture.' Human nature is often attributed to acts of aggression towards each other like that is a 'natural' thing.' Is it really? Are we all just animals? Personally, I think humans are born with a build-in 'survival mode' but as your brain develops it is capable of so much more. When the brain starts developing, you, just like a computer, start receiving programming. The next stage of development is the programming interacting with the environment. If I had to put it in an equation I would say that 10% is nature and that 90% is nurture. A person is fed and cared for from birth, we don't grow up in the wild, we grow up in protective surroundings. Therefore I don't attribute much to instinct, most of the human condition is taught and influenced by the environment. Which brings me to this quote from Muertos.

"In simpler terms, high modernist projects are doomed to fail because they are profoundly naïve about human behavior, institutions and culture."

Several things here. I agree with Muertos that if you would put everyone on the planet in a RBE tomorrow there's a high probability it would fail, that's because most people right now are simply preoccupied with their own self interest and needs, how trivial that may be. Stick those people in another world and they'll just continue their old habits. Change or behavioral modification takes time.
Human behavior at the moment is basically centered on self interest. You basically go to work because you earn money and that in turn enables you to buy food and all the other necessities of life. You work at an institution for the interest of that institution because that in turn serves your interest. Culture is largely shaped by the most dominant institutions, be it churches, political parties, media and so on. That is the world we live in. Once you start comparing that world to a Resourced Based Economy where everything is provided for without charge through technology, the average person would be skeptical because it's such a stark contrast to the world we live in today. Naturally, people start to wonder what the cost might be and what they risk to lose.

High modernist projects are not inherently naive, it's the people themselves who wonder about their own self interest. You can bring it all back to psychology and ideology. The Venus Project takes that into account by advocating a holistic approach. It appeals, in large, to our higher nature which of course is something some people have a hard time getting at. It proposes; what is good for everyone is also good for yourself, but in the egomaniac oriented society that we have today that view is of course the other way around. What is good for myself, is good for everyone. It becomes a matter of (global) social therapy and it will take time. The Venus Project, in my opinion, is a futuristic ideal. It lays the premise of understanding that ideal on emotional and intellectual maturity, something that is scarce right now in our world. However, it must start somewhere. You can call that a Project in many ways. Addressing both the inner- and outer world.

"High modernists simply assume that people and their behaviors can be neatly crammed into well-ordered boxes that will operate efficiently. Their contempt for the idea of human nature is a by-product of this myopia. History shows, however, that these types of projects always fail. When a high modernist project is undertaken by an authoritarian state, such as the Soviet Union under Stalin, the zeal to achieve unrealistic goals combined with the state’s increasing efforts to streamline the process often results in death and suffering on a colossal scale." (Muertos)

'High modernism' is an extension of technological progress. Whether it will succeed or not is dependent on the psychological progress of the people. One can't fully work without the other. A high modernist like myself doesn't assume that everything will fall into place when a RBE is suddenly put into place. We have to take into account the level of psychological maturity. There is no contempt for the idea of human nature, if there would be any contempt at all it would be for the human condition, not for human nature which is in fact negligible. It's human conditioning, people are born and raised in a culture that imposes a set of values on them. Those values are accepted (without question) to a large degree. The Venus Project examines those values and proposes new ones. It's not that humans and their trains of thought are ignored, other options are simply presented.
Bringing up the Soviet Union as an example of failed high modernism is questionable. First of let me say that I haven't met a Zeitgeist supporter yet that supports such a society like that in the U.S.S.R. in the previous century. Nobody is waiting for another totalitarian regime. Period. Making the connection between the Soviet Union during the Cold War period and a futuristic society like the Venus Project is in fact a false association. There's already the assumption (projection) that these two models are highly similar if not identical. They are not.
The U.S.S.R. was dependent on the technological level of the time period, as you know technology evolves. Much more technologies are available right now that weren't there in the time of the Soviet Union. More importantly they were part of the monetary system and bound by the restrictions of finance. Lastly, they were a separate part of a global dynamic system and forces were at work hampering their progress. It's too simplistic to say they failed because of unrealistic goals, it's much more complex.
Could the Soviet Union finance their entire society so that everyone was fed and housed in luxury? No, they couldn't. In a monetary system there simply isn't enough money to do that. The system wont allow it because the system is dependent on money circulation and economic growth of itself. Secondly, where do you think most of the money was spend on in the Soviet Union during the Cold War era? On defense, not on its people, because there were other nations in the world with their own national interests and agenda's. That's what I mean by 'dynamic forces' because there were other hardline-ideological states, such as the U.S., who made the need for military expenditures absolutely necessary. In the end the Soviet Union was bankrupt.
Comparing the Soviet Union to high modernism or the Venus Project and make the proclamation that they failed and will fail is very simplistic, if not outright false. A myriad of factors contributed to the decline of the Soviet Union, not high modernism by itself.

"In the 1950s, the government of Brazil was eager to forge a totally new capital city, one that would be functional, efficient, beautiful and above all ultra-modern. [snip] No one congregates in the broad open squares because there’s nothing to do there—no shops, no places of social interaction, no reason to go there other than to be there. Everyone hates the apartment buildings because they’re bland, blocky and utterly devoid of any sort of character." (Muertos)

Next point in the critique on the Venus Project. Modern cities are boring to live in and lack character. That's what it basically amounts up to. The city of Brasilia is mentioned as an example. Listing such an example is strictly done in order to associate a city such as Brasilia and the negative connotations that already accompany it, with a modern (circular) city the Venus Project proposes. Classic example of projection. The main problem here is that there are not enough recreation facilities for the people that live in that town. If there were shopping malls and topless bars, most people would have said that it is a helluva place to live in. The solution here is very simple, add places for recreation. Oddly enough, and you can read it up in Fresco's books or interviews, he actually suggests a 'recreation belt' in the cities he proposes.
The problem with cities such as Brasilia, aside from the lack of recreational facilities, is that over time they get outdated. New building materials, ways of construction and technology make such a place look old and inefficient within decades. Yet there isn't enough money (of course) to constantly update and upgrade such a city and bring it up to more modern standards and the wishes of its people. In our monetary system this would be a hard thing to do since the cost would be tremendously high. In a Resource Based Economy I would suspect this would be an easy thing to do since no money would be involved, just the availability of resources would be the main issue. Cities such as Brasilia aren't an example of high modernism failing, they are an example of poor (long term) planning and the restrictions that the monetary system lays upon improvements.

"It’s the ultimate pinnacle of high modernist folly, and would invariably collapse into a disaster so bloody and chaotic that it would make Stalin’s forced collectivization look benign by comparison." (Muertos)

Muertos continues by making a connection between Stalin's brutal policies and high modernism, the latter being the core element of the Zeitgeist Movement and the Venus Project. While I have my doubts that Stalin's policies can be termed 'high modernism' in the truest sense of the word, of course they can be construed as forced social change. However making the connection between a part of history that was costly in lives and claiming such matters will automatically happen in the future on an even greater scale, clearly falls into the category of fear mongering.
If anything, most Zeitgeist supporters are well aware of their history and no one is seeking a repetition of a communist society with all its downfalls. Any intelligent person knows that forced social change will be met by opposition. Subsequently, this is not about advocating forced social change, it's about finding common ground and shared values. We are in the stage of making a proposal and creating awareness, but if you start making negative associations than you're already figuratively throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In my book, such an act would be intellectually dishonest.

“First and foremost, high modernism implies a truly radical break with history and tradition….All human habits and practices that were inherited and hence not based on scientific reasoning–from the structure of the family and patterns of residence to moral values and forms of production–would have to be reexamined and redesigned…" (Scott)

I don't see that much fault with professor Scott's reasoning so far. The only important matter that is absent here is that high modernism can be seen as a constant, and therefore always influencing tradition, human habits and practices. New discoveries in technology change the culture all the time. There is no stopping that. The invention of the telephone enabled people to communicate over vast distances, cellular phones made it even more easier and people suddenly could communicate when they were mobile. It transformed culture. The invention of the airplane literally opened up the world since people could travel everywhere on the globe. The invention of the computer opened up a world of itself, communication, calculation and a host of other utilities. Culture is constantly being transformed by new technological inventions and applications.
The point here is that if you would take the 'high' out of high modernism, tradition, human habits and practices would still be challenged with every step on the path of technological evolution. High modernism takes the change to its fullest potential, that's why it conflicts so much with conservative elements who wish that things remain as they are. If you would remove the 'high' out of high modernism the conflict itself will remain, it just becomes a matter of intensity. Maybe conservative elements need to realize that Pandora's box is already opened. Not many people are willing to return to simpler lifestyles. Inventions such as the telephone and the computer are here to stay, they will only go away if something better is invented. In this regard it also becomes clear that change is a constant.

"The sources of this view are deeply authoritarian. If a planned social order is better than the accidental, irrational deposit of historical practice, two conclusions follow. Only those who have the scientific knowledge to discern and create this superior social order are fit to rule in the new age. Further, those who through retrograde ignorance refuse to yield to the new scientific plan need to be educated to its benefits or else swept aside.” (Scott)

I'm not sure high modernism would automatically lead to a deeply authoritarian society. One can learn from mistakes in the past and as such it is no guarantee such a thing would happen in the future. Personally, I was under the impression that the Venus Project sets its aims a little higher by focusing strongly on matters such as freedom and equality - ensuring the necessities of life for all the people in the world. Many states in the past (and right now), democratic or otherwise, couldn't even do that for their own people.
But lets be totally honest here. Can high modernism lead to a totalitarian state? Yes, of course. Human nature or human conditioning, take your pick, can lead to elitist behavior where one thinks the majority of the people are too ignorant or unintelligent and that decisions have to be made for them. Yet, is this exclusive to high modernism? No, not at all.
One only needs to take a hard look at the world of politics and you would realize that such thought patterns are happening all the time. In a democracy politicians make decisions for you, but who benefits the most from those decisions, the people or the institution/establishment?

In our history, how many nations made the transition from democracy to totalitarian states? Quite a few actually. Disregarding the eastern European states that fell under the influence of the Soviet Union there were a number of states across the globe who found themselves under a (military) dictatorship, often supported by the U.S. I might add. High modernism doesn't seem to be the main cause. It's the self interest of a group.

It's fairer to say that a recipe for disaster is always present. It is fueled by socio-economic differences and inequality, which are brought on by the self interest of the most dominant institutions. These institutions shape society, not high modernism by default. High modernism interacts with culture and influences it but it is the most dominant institution(s) that has the final say. Just take a look at modern day U.S., big business interests basically rule the country and it's all about the money - and has been so for the last 100 years. Thirty to forty million people don't have proper healthcare and are not insured or underinsured. The health of the people is not the main priority. The public debt is now around 14 trillion dollars, have you heard one bank say they are going to help making the U.S. financially sound? No of course not, they are pursuing their own self interest which is profit in this case. If the U.S. economy should totally fail you can bet your last dollar those banks will move their main office to another country and leave the American people out to dry.

In case you didn't notice not every new technology is implemented right away. Have you seen many cars that run on hydrogen or strictly on durable battery power? Not that many, right? Now, why is that - why wasn't new technology adopted right away? Answer, because it's not in the interest of those in power. If hydrogen or battery power was used, the oil industry and a large part of the economy which is based on that would be severely diminished. That's why they don't do it. Self interest, profit and the circulation of money (cyclical consumption) are the most dominant values in our global society, not the people or any sense of equality. It is profit and the pursuit of self interest that causes all the ills in the world. Maybe this is the true recipe for disaster.

Professor Scott already formulated it wisely, 'a planned social order is better than the accidental, irrational deposit of historical practice.' Perhaps we can postulate that the Venus Project is a planned social order and better then the one we have now? Implementing it is another matter altogether and I fully acknowledge that it will cause a great deal of friction with our current values. Therefore you can't make such changes right away. It simply wouldn't work and elitist behavior is right around the corner when the new values challenge the old ones.
What we need is patience. Radical changes must take time in order to avoid conflict. What we need is education. People should increase their knowledge of the world and not only discover what drives its people but also those things we have in common. Education is one of the most valuable assets a person can have. People should learn about themselves and ask themselves why they do certain things. Hopefully they'll realize that the next person is not that different. Lastly, we must keep the dialogue going and hope for more understanding between our fellowmen. In that spirit I hope that Muertos and other critics of the Venus Project have learned something. Us Zeitgeist and Venus Project supporters don't want chaos, we want a better life just like you do.

Ed V.


Muertos said...

I appreciate your critique. I believe you've mischaracterized Professor Scott's argument in a few key respects.

First, the example of Stalin's forced collectivization is not deployed to reach any conclusion about the Soviet system as a whole or its goals. To argue that the Soviet Union failed because of various economic factors is not an argument that Scott made--not even close. Nor am I using this example to suggest that I think Zeitgeisters want a society like that in the USSR. That's not the point. Scott's point is that high modernist projects, regardless of the ideological pole from which they depart, ALWAYS tend toward authoritarian excess. That means it doesn't matter whether the high modernist proposing these sweeping changes is a leftist, a fascist, a constitutional monarchist, a technocrat or an anarchist. Once you start implementing high modernism, you're entering an arena of authoritarian muscle tactics--regardless of whether you agree ideologically with authoritarianism or not.

This is crucial to understand: it does not matter what your motives are. It doesn't matter whether you want to kill 20 million people or whether you believe in freedom and equality for all. The belief behind the project is irrelevant. It's the project itself, and the way high modernist ideology ignores and attempts to supplant organically-created human structures, that causes a totalitarian result.

Your dismissal of the Brasilia example is frivolous. You make it sound as if the only thing wrong with Brasilia is the lack of recreational facilities. In fact Brasilia does not lack recreational facilities. What it lacks is a human soul. Scott makes this point very clearly, though I admit I didn't hit it that hard in my blog presentation.

Finally, you twist one of Scott's important premises on its head by taking it out of context. You said:

"Professor Scott already formulated it wisely, 'a planned social order is better than the accidental, irrational deposit of historical practice.'"

Only one thing, Scott DIDN'T formulate it that way, nor does he believe a planned social order IS better than accidental, irrational deposit of historical practice.

Read the quote again:

"The sources of this view are deeply authoritarian. IF a planned social order is better than the accidental, irrational deposit of historical practice, two conclusions follow. Only those who have the scientific knowledge to discern and create this superior social order are fit to rule in the new age. Further, those who through retrograde ignorance refuse to yield to the new scientific plan need to be educated to its benefits or else swept aside.”

Therefore, IF you agree that a planned social order is better than organic structures--which you make clear in this blog that you do--then Scott's thesis is that you are signing up for jack boots right then and there. A high modernist ideology cannot tolerate participation of people who don't share the value judgment that their new order is better than the old one. And those who resist the old order will be eliminated. Scott's thesis is that the elimination usually happens by force.

I do credit you, however, with a more intelligent assessment of these issues than the other responses I've had to my blog. I had one of your fellow Zeitgeisters tell me that I must accept Zeitgeist's ideology or I would die. He didn't mean that as a threat. He was just pointing out that because the world is headed for "omnisuicidal" extinction, my only two choices were to accept Zeitgeist or become worm food. Thank you for not responding to me with that sort of lunacy.

Ed V. said...

Couple of things Muertos. Yes I did quote Scott out of context. Partly because I wanted to be a bit frivolous as you say but more importantly in order to get to my closing statements. The Venus Project can be construed as a better social order but at the same time I fully recognize that it is completely dependent on the acceptance of the people, and not something to rush into.

Secondly, I'm not denying high modernism can lead a totalitarian state but I'm also not willing to accept this is a certainty as professor Scott suggests.
Scott also included this in formulation;
"the accidental, irrational deposit of historical practice.."
Meaning that there are many elements in our cultural baggage that serve no purpose and are outdated. I'm not suggesting such elements should be forcefully removed, they should be recognized for what they are. Through dialogue and education a lot of negativity can be avoided, at least that is my conviction.

I also would like to address your own methodology because from my perspective it is lacking in depth analysis, if you don't mind me being so bold. I've noticed that you often attribute negativity towards the Venus Project and the Zeitgeist Movement, yet if you would expand that horizon to our established institutions you would easily discover the same processes. Not mirroring where you come from is a safe approach in that it doesn't examine your own negativity and helps to lay to full burden on that which you criticize.

Lets just say Muertos that at this point I'm expecting a bit more objectivity from you.

Ed V. said...

"Scott also included this in *HIS* formulation"

"helps to lay *THE* full burden on that which you criticize"

(Sorry for the typos, I was in a rush.)

Muertos said...

Ed, you state, "I've noticed that you often attribute negativity towards the Venus Project and the Zeitgeist Movement, yet if you would expand that horizon to our established institutions you would easily discover the same processes."

I've never claimed anything different. Clearly the economic systems of the world (notice I say systemS, plural, because there is more than one) have problems, and so do the political systems. Expecting "objectivity" in the sense of, if I criticize the Zeitgeist Movement I should also criticize what you term "the money system," is a totally false dichotomy.

Many, I venture to say most, defenders of the Zeitgeist Movement employ this dichotomy to one degree or another--the assumption that if you don't like Zeitgeist ideology, you must therefore like "the money system." That's nowhere even implicit in my comments. I could be a fierce opponent of "the money system" and still make exactly the same argument I've made here. Interestingly, Professor James Scott is an anarchist in his political beliefs. I have no idea what his economic beliefs are, but anarchists don't tend to be supporters of traditional conservative capitalism, so to paint critics of Zeitgeist ideology as supporters of the status quo simply doesn't work.

You seem to be suggesting that for every criticism I make of the Zeitgeist Movement I should make an equal criticism of "the money system" in order to be objective. That presumes, first of all, that I understand "the money system" in roughly the same terms you do. I don't, because you reduce it to a monolithic entity without any sort of nuance or gradation. It also presumes that it's a zero sum game, that you either believe in Zeitgeist, or you believe in "the money system." If that is your supposition, I submit that it's inherently false.

Clearly there are a lot of things wrong with the world, not just one thing, and not just "the money system." You seem to believe (correct me if I'm wrong) that Zeitgeist is the be-all, end-all, uber-fix-it solution. Obviously I disagree with that. The fact that I disagree does not, however, mean that I think the world is peachy keen. It just means that I think your program for improving it is going to do more harm than good, based upon Professor Scott's analysis of similar movements.

Ed V. said...

Well Sean, I think people who listen to hard rock music (metal) are dark spirited, satan-worshippers, out to create chaos and are a danger to society.

What does such a statement do for you?
How would you rate it in objectivity?

Now, I don't believe the opening barrage myself but for arguments sake I want to use it as a means to an end. What does the paragraph say about me? That I'm a conservative religious person? Although it's probable it is by no means conclusive. I could use the religious angle, hijack it more or less, in order to do some damage. Yet, have I revealed my exact position? No, not at all. My approach is in fact a sweeping generalization while hiding my motives at the same time. What does this do for a dialogue?

You say that, and I quote;
"to paint critics of Zeitgeist ideology as supporters of the status quo simply doesn't work"

I have no disagreement with the statement you made, in fact generalizations serve little purpose other then to label the opposition as inadequate. Zeitgeist critics can come from any walks of life and their motives/arguments can vary a great deal.

Question though, why do you paint supporters of Zeitgeist ideology as inadequate? (From your blog 'Seeing Like a State');

"Zeitgeist is a fringe movement existing mostly on the Internet. Oddly, its internal cohesion seems to owe more to its reliance on conspiracy theories than on any conscious unification behind the RBE concept (despite what many of its followers say to the contrary)."

"I’ve blogged several times before about the Zeitgeist Movement. This bizarre organization,..."

It wouldn't take much effort on my part labeling the guys over at the Conspiracy Science forums as inadequate. I'd just take the worst parts I could find and make a negative generalization. Easily done.
Hell, I even knew that professor Scott's definition of 'high modernism' was already highly pejorative in nature, I proceeded using it nonetheless.

When I say 'show your position and mirror your criticism of Zeitgeist to the real world,' it is not meant as a way of absolution of Zeitgeist, it is meant as an examination of your own critique. Basically, I already know your position and I see the methods employed here that make your point. I want to make room for constructive elements. Deconstructing is easy.