The Venus Project is moving forward, but toward what?
The third installment of filmmaker Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist film series, the documentary Moving Forward, is being released worldwide on January 15. In Vancouver, it will be screened at the Rio Theatre, at 12 p.m. This is a propaganda movie for the Zeitgeist movement, the activist arm of the Venus Project, an organization that aims to radically transform society by moving it towards what they call a “resource-based economy”, in which there is no money. The movement reportedly has half a million members in over 60 countries, including a growing chapter in Vancouver. This is a fascinating achievement, considering that the project is devoid of any actual content.
The first movie of the series argued that Christ is a mythical figure, that 9/11 was an inside job perpetrated by the U.S. government and that our destinies are being controlled by the “international bankers”. According to the director, the movie got 100,000,000 views online in one year. The second movie focused on the evils caused by money. Moving Forward will be more like the second movie, presenting the case for the Venus Project and arguing for a need to transition out of the current monetary system.
You may not have heard about the Project. According to founder Jacques Fresco, the free enterprise system is failing, and people are accumulating debt. The situation, he says, calls for urgent and radical social change. At this point, the revolutionary in you awakes, and you may feel that it is true, that we do need urgent and radical social change. The status quo needs to be challenged. Unfortunately, this is as far as the project goes in terms of real detail. Regarding everything else, Fresco mentions a set of incredibly ambitious (and naive) goals, and no method for achieving them.
The Venus Project aims to implement a plan to eliminate war, poverty, hunger, crime and taxes (sounds promising), through innovative uses of science and technology, and a new economic system. At the core of the Project lies a critique of the profit motive. According to Fresco, if we hold on to the profit motive as the motor of economy, we will reach an inevitable breaking point. The growing use of machines increases production, but also increases unemployment. Eventually, not enough people will be able to afford what is being produced, and the global economy will collapse. There will be riots, and a military dictatorship will follow, to try to keep people under control. All freedoms will be lost.
In order to avoid this spiral of self-destruction, the beginning of which we may be witnessing now, says Fresco, we need to move beyond the profit motive. The root of the problem is scarcity. Because there is scarcity or the threat of scarcity, and people can overcome it if they have money, they become obsessed about it. In the monetary system, having money is a means not only to acquire objects and services, but also respect from others. Greed and envy are a creation—a side effect—of the monetary system and the profit motive.
Fresco views money a system for rationing resources. The need to ration resources, however, comes from the very mechanisms of the profit motive, he claims. He points out that we often limit production of food to keep prices up. Our purchasing power, he concludes, is not related to our capacity of production. During a depression, there are cars in lots, and DVDs and books in stores, unsold, because people do not have the purchasing power to buy them. If we move beyond the monetary system, however, and into what he calls a “resource-based economy”, production will be maximized and there will be no need to ration resources. Everyone will have everything they could ever want.
The worry expressed by Fresco that the increase use of machines will cause permanent mass unemployment is a recurrent fear that dates from the beginning of the industrial revolution. But automation has never caused any permanent and widespread increase in unemployment. It has instead made economies grow, which facilitated the creation of other jobs, and lowered the price of goods for all. During the industrial revolution, the average salaries of both white and blue collar workers increased, and infant mortality radically decreased.
Fresco is not really a Luddite. In fact, in his resource-based economy, machines will produce everything, so humans are free for more creative endeavours. How is this to be accomplished? We are told that a central artificially intelligent computer will manage government and production. It is disheartening to hear that the Project’s seemingly simple solution to our economic worries requires that we solve the most difficult engineering problem ever posed to humankind—full-fledged artificial intelligence—first.
Let us look at the project’s assumptions about human psychology. Is it realistic to think that giving up on money will eliminate greed and envy? If someone is good at a competitive sport, will they no longer risk being over-ambitious, and consumed by a desire to win more medals and awards? If someone is extremely good-looking, funny or popular, will others no longer feel envy? Or will medals and good looks and friends be equally distributed to everyone? Fresco even goes as far as saying that there will be no jealousy, because there will be a new education system. Why has no one thought of that before? Why do we keep using the old one?
The scarcity of resources is not a consequence of the monetary system, as Fresco says, but a fact of nature. He claims that each will be able to get all that they want, but suppose that I want to live in a big house by the beach. Since there are no such houses for everyone, will I have to share my big house with twenty other families? That sort of defeats the purpose. When people ask about details, Fresco and his followers tend to say that not all the details have been worked out, since this is an ongoing project.
Saying that monarchy will work, so long as we have a kind king, or that communism will work, so long as each citizen is sufficiently altruistic, should not really count as having a project for a new society. The devil is in the details. What is the Venus Project? A religion for atheists? It seems to me that it is just too vague to really be anything but a cool name from outer space. Fresco usually charges $10 to tell you why the monetary system is obsolete. Entry to see the movie will be by donation.
You can see Zeitgeist III: Moving Forward for yourself at Rio on Saturday (January 15). Doors open at 12 p.m., and if you miss it or just want to see it again, there is a second screening at Norm Theatre (Student Union Building of UBC) on January 18. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Vasco Castela is a philosophy professor and a writer living in Vancouver.