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2012-01-19 — The Filmmaker Who Recruited Millions — The Marker

Thursday, January 19, 2012


by Asher Shechter

Peter Joseph was a minor artist until a documentary film he created received tens of millions of views. In an interview with TheMarker he lays out his philosophy and explains a redesign of the economy

Zeitgeist (Zeitgeist in German): the spirit of the times; the collection of ideas and world-views characterizing a time period, distinguishing the social and cultural atmosphere of the age.

Peter Joseph had never planned to become a full-time activist, a cultural icon or a prophet of doom, until an audience of believers knocked on his door and demanded it of him. Joseph, a rather shy filmmaker and performance artist from New York, always felt something was wrong in the world, that he was not being told the whole truth, that the world's real managers make dubious deals in dark rooms at public expense, which at the time has not yet earned the nickname "the 99%".

He was disgusted by the corporate world and felt disgusted with himself, for he was, he said, enslaved to the system, but could not find a way to express it or escape the cycle of debt and bondage. In 2007 he created a documentary film called "Zeitgeist", designed to accompany an art exhibit he held in Brooklyn. It was a personal project designed to allow him to feel better about himself and his place in the world. Then he posted the film on to the Internet.

What happened next can only be described as a wildfire. The film, which combined conspiracy theories about world religions and the capitalist system and a harangue against the corrupt nature of the global socio-economic system, was posted for free viewing on the World Wide Web and spread extremely fast.

Millions watched the film, web-surfers shared it on Facebook and other sites, posted it on video sites and quoted it on blogs. The video quickly became a Web phenomenon, and Joseph became a guru for hundreds of thousands of activists, skeptics, and just plain lovers of conspiracy theories. In an era when relativism of truth is a fait accompli, the film became for many a trusted reflection of the truth, or of the spirit of the times.

"It was not an average documentary film, it was much more abstract than a normal movie. The film is designed to take people on a journey, make them think about extreme things, which is why it was so effective. That was also the reason that many did not like the film, but it was an art project, not a documentary. It was designed to inspire. My other films are much more traditional," says Joseph, 33, in an interview with Markerweek in advance of his visit to Israel next month.

On February 6, Joseph will speak at the Z-Fest Tel Aviv 2012 event, to be held at the Zionists of America (ZOA) House. The event was organized by the Zeitgeist Movement Israel Branch, the Israeli J14 protest site, the Cooperative for Renewable Energy and the Admama Center for Sustainability.

(Photo caption: Demonstrations on Wall Street: We are the 99%.)

The first Zeitgeist film was, to say the least, controversial. It amassed tens of millions of views online (Joseph in 2009 estimated that more than 50 million people watched the film), and along with them much criticism, too. The film, which is reminiscent of a video art project more than serious investigative reporting, starts with a debunking of the Christian faith and the other monotheist religions, claiming that much of the beliefs and traditions related to them were borrowed from pagan astrological doctrines, before turning to its true purpose: the bankers.

According to the film, the economy and modern society were enslaved, since the early 20th century, to an international group of bankers, that led the U.S. to World War I and II and the wars in Vietnam and Iraq to increase the bankers' economic power.

To do so, said Joseph, they created the Federal Reserve bank, which forced the U.S. into the wars so that the US would borrow money from the bank, and engineered events such as the sinking of the British ship Lusitania - that contributed to the U.S. entry into the First World War - and the attack on Pearl Harbor that led the U.S. to enter World War II.

The September 11 attacks, Joseph claims in the film, were the result of a government conspiracy designed to sow fear among the public, and to allow the regime to limit democracy and freedom of expression and strengthen the control of the financiers and politicians on the public. Their goal, he claimed in the film, is to unite the U.S., Canada and Mexico into one state, on the road to the final goal - a single government ruling the world.

The evidence presented by Joseph in the movie was, for the most part, incomplete at best, and based on speculation at worst. After all, the film was an art project, not intended as a coherent socio-economic analysis but to serve Joseph's creativity. Nevertheless, Joseph received severe criticism: criticism in the "Irish Times" called the movie "absolute nonsense" and accused Joseph that his surrealistic claims stain real struggles against real problems.

However, despite the criticism, the film was a huge success. The film successfully captured the spirit of the times, and addressed a generation raised on conspiracy films and a reality which tries with all its might to prove how much these films were right. The correctness of his claims was not critical: the skeptical tone of things was what attracted many, who knew that reality is not as it seems.

Today, with two sequels behind him, and while he is busy creating a fourth film in the series, Peter Joseph is more relaxed. He is now a full-time activist, and spends most of his time promoting global economic and social change. The success of the first film and the second film "Zeitgeist: Addendum", which he released in 2008, were used to establish the Zeitgeist Movement, which seeks to change the economic and social system and holds, he says, more than 1,000 branches operating in 70 countries around the world.

(Photo caption: a poster for 'Zeitgeist: Moving Forward', the third movie in the Zeitgeist series.)

The members of the movement are mainly engaged in raising awareness on the issues discussed in the films regarding the inherent unsustainability and the structural corruption of the current socio-economic system. They endeavor to raise consciousness through, among other things, 'ZDay', the yearly Zeitgeist Day, that the movement holds every year from 2009 to date, and which will take place this year on March 10th.

Joseph is now trying to distance himself as far as possible from the conspiracy claims of the first film - an updated version of the film, released in 2010, dropped the claim on the unification of the U.S., Canada and Mexico - and argues that not all of the claims made in the first film should be taken very seriously, because they are designed to create a dramatic effect. "You need to make the information you present compelling, otherwise people get bored to death. So some people think I'm extreme, what can I do. "

Even if you do not agree with everything Joseph says - and large portions of the claims and conclusions of the members of the Zeitgeist movement may sound far-reaching even to particularly radical readers - it is impossible to ignore the underground currents that the movement represented. The Zeitgeist Movement symbolizes the atmosphere of suspicion and doubt in all the government agencies and large businesses with which an entire generation came of age, a generation which witnessed in recent years how reality aligns itself even with the most delusional conspiracies - as the doings of "international bankers", to use the Zeitgeist term, delivered a major blow to the global economy.

Zeitgeist found a following among the tens of millions of people, because it speaks to the two most dominant components in our lives today: the fear of change, and the knowledge that change is certain to come. When the global economy is in an unprecedented crisis caused by the financial industry, and social activists in the West complain of restrictions on democratic rights and corrupt connections between the wealthy elite and politicians, it is understandable how Zeitgeist has become a representative of the spirit of the times.

Joseph says he does not particularly care for the celebrity status forced upon him as a result of the success of the films. He does not even have a public-relation picture of himself. The movement, he says, was formed almost by necessity. "The first film was a personal project. I did not have a production company, I had nothing. I uploaded it online just to see if I'll receive any reactions. I did not think it will become a hit, but it led me to create the second film. Following the reactions I had to form the movement. The reactions to the second film were so strong, and the community relations so strong - people burning CDs with the movies, asking what to do next - that I wanted to allow this community that was created to form itself, thus giving birth to the movement. "

Today, as discussed earlier, Joseph distances himself as far as possible from conspiracies. "There is no conspiracies," says Joseph. "I'm not interested in conspiracies, because every element of society today is conspiratorial. This is a system based on ruthless competition between individual humans, between countries, between corporations. Every person and every party is competing for contracts, jobs, and resources. This is world today - one big self interest. This is the major flaw of the system, because everyone is busy surviving and nobody wants to think for the long term. Every political party, every country, every corporation and every person are concerned with their personal survival and fighting the others. Each party or each person advances at the expense of someone else. This is theory of the market. No one is willing to work together in a way that is necessary to our survival as a species. To me, this is anti-economics.

"I present information that leads people to understand that we are not being told the truth, that we have problems in our socio-economic system that make the system corrupt in nature. When I talked about the conspiracy to hide the truth about the September 11 attacks, I did not do more than display information, but some people would say that this is a conspiracy theory. To claim 'conspiracy' is an easy way to avoid dealing with the information and to deter people, because no one wants to be associated with the margins of society and to see the film on the conspiracy. It's a great way to control people. "

The first film in the Zeitgeist series was released at the same time as the subprime crisis which brought down the U.S. economy. The second film, which expands on the arguments of the first, was released almost simultaneously with the escalating financial crisis after the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers, in the background of central banks rescuing the major banks using public funds without transparency.

In June 2011, when the third film "Zeitgeist: Moving Forward" was released and criticized the current monetary system, claiming it could lead only to one of two possible scenarios - insolvency or hyper-inflation, Joseph's claims sounded, to many people, less delusional. The European debt crisis was in full swing and the United States, too, seemed to teeter on the brink of insolvency, in the midst of the debt ceiling crisis. Currently Joseph is working on a fourth film, which he said will focus on criticisms of beliefs, value systems and dominant institutions in society, and would raise the question: "Is your value system and belief system sustainable?"

In a certain sense Joseph is also the prophet of the global protest movement that erupted around the world four years after the release of the first Zeitgeist movie, and reflected faithfully the spirit of skepticism of the film regarding the actions of the governing authorities, bankers, and the distorted relationships between them. The third movie also described a scenario of a dramatic global uprising. "I do not know what was the impact of the movies on the protest", he says, "There are all kinds of speculation on the matter. I will not be surprised if the films planted a few seeds here and there".

Last fall, Joseph appeared in the protest tent of the Occupy movement in Los Angeles and spoke to those present. "The current period is an incredible moment of open-mindedness. I do not know if the global protests will lead to something tangible, but if so, we are working so that we can assist it. At this stage there is nothing much that can be done. I do not want to create a government which would impose its ideas on others. I want to liberate people's consciousness and cause humanity to share a common vision. The only way to do this is to plant seeds and hope they will grow."

The future, he predicts, will do only good for the movement he heads. "2012 will be really ugly, I do not look forward to it. The largest natural disaster imaginable is happening right now before our eyes, and that is the failure of our socio-economic system. The real natural disaster is the human catastrophe which is happening now. This will serve as a tremendous catalyst for the movement. Over a billion people are starving, we are burning through our resources quickly, and instability is increasing. I do not see us continuing in this process for long, unless we are willing to transition from a state of a billion hungry people to a state of 2-3 billion hungry people and widespread environmental destruction."

The future belongs to computers

Joseph was born in 1978 in North Carolina to a middle-class family, to a postman father and a social worker mother. From childhood he showed an interest in music and art, and doubts about the validity of social norms. "I never liked people telling me what to do."

He enrolled as an undergraduate student, but left during his second year of college, even as he aspired to become a classical musician - according to him, because he understood that the debt he accumulated as a student "was not worth it". The U.S. higher education system, he claims, was intended to impose such a huge debt burden on you, "that once you leave the university you will become a slave to the system." He began to work in video editing and later found himself in the advertising industry. After he resigned, according to him because he hated the industry, he began to play in the stock market to earn some money, and did so for years. According to him, he managed to earn a moderate profit.

In 2007 he created the first Zeitgeist film. After he released the second movie he established the Zeitgeist Movement, which he said was intended to change the global economic and social system through technology and science. "I never expected anything like this. It does not suit my character to stand aggressively in front of something. The way in which we operate the movement is by empowering other people all over the world. They all work without a leadership structure. It is very dangerous to be a leader.

If there is anything that should disappear from the world, then that is the concept of individual leaders, whether it is a president or a parliament. It is an outdated, obsolete idea that encourages a personality cult, and as it continues people just continue to follow it. I do not want to be seen as a source of authority, I have no power. I'm just explaining what I think and what I do, and hope people will understand".

He can not explain the fact that both he and many of the revolutionaries around the world, including Daphni Leef and many initiators of the social protest in Israel, are filmmakers. "I guess it's easier than writing a book," he laughs. "But yes, I guess my artistic background allows me to be more open to new ideas. Einstein and other famous thinkers were also creative people. In the movement we have lots of artists and scientists."

His main partner since the publication of the second film is Jacque Fresco, an engineer, industrial designer and futurist. Fresco is a 95 year old Frenchman who in the 1970s created what came to be known as the "Venus Project" - which is trying to promote the transformation of the global economy to a "resource-based economy" in which money will not play a role, and the allocation of resources, products and services would be managed by computers that will provide for the needs of the residents according to supply and demand.

Yes, you read that correctly: According to these theories, the future economy will be managed by computers. And if that sounds like a recipe for a futuristic-dystopian movie in the style of "Terminator" or "The Matrix", where machines rule the human race and exploit it to their benefit, then, says Joseph, you have seen too many movies.

"I meet so many people who are afraid of this idea, and when you think about it this fear is quite silly. First of all, already today machines make decisions for us. Machines are more efficient and faster. When you drive a car or when you are doing something else, pay the rent for example, you make technical decisions irrespective of your race, nationality or religion. In the future no one will sit in a room and design cars. A computer will plan it, think which design is the most effective and what is the most efficient way to produce it. I can not think at my best all the time, I can not compete with a calculator.

"The use of machines for making decisions and social management, in the broadest sense, is the next step in our evolution. I do not understand why people may be afraid of that if we already do it today. If cars will drive themselves, accidents will disappear almost completely. It just shows how these concerns are obsolete. With the aid of computers we can gather people who will reshape the world, we can feed everyone, provide everyone with a good quality of life. All that is needed is that we change our values. Today, the present system is based on a large and inefficient battle, which bites into the social and natural resources of the planet. If we continue to conduct ourselves this way, it may lead to the extinction of humanity."

In addition to Fresco, says Joseph, he was also influenced by the architect, inventor and philosopher Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodetic dome, who dealt at length with the way humanity needs to manage the earth's resources. "We live today in a system of anti-economics. Our system is not effective, and in fact is driven by lack of efficiency. The physical and mental diseases from which we suffer, the shoddy education, the money that is not invested in education and infrastructure, are all the result of a system collapsing into itself. We're trying to invent a serious social approach, which takes into account all of humanity and the planet, because we cannot continue with our current approach".

Expand the sense of survival

What distinguishes the Zeitgeist movement, according to Joseph, is that it aims not only to change the economic system, but to turn upside-down the entire design of society. The Zeitgeist is an extreme voice, both in its ideological background and in its requirements for the future. But it represents, perhaps more than any other movement, the spirit of the general chaos that exists in the world today - a world where current methods are bankrupt, and a new method, even if extreme, may find a foothold in the public discourse. The Zeitgeist films address an audience who knows not to accept everything the movies say as sacrosanct. The goal, he says, is to instill in people the spirit of things, not the facts, so that they would work to change the system.

"In my view, all the crimes in the world are the product of the system itself. The social system is based on a very old, obsolete way of thinking - 'survival of the fittest' - which is based on the assumption that there are not enough resources. The grand unfolding, in my view, is that there are sufficient resources and have always been, but we did not have the required technology to realize this. We never thought of designing a city where food production would be organic and local, and it can be done easily using semi-automatic systems which will take care that no one would go hungry. We have solar power and geothermal energy that can be converted into electrical energy. We all know today that we can feed all the people in the world, but we do not do it. The question is why.

"The current system is inefficient and destructive, and if we won't pull ourselves together, and soon, the system will destroy us. In China, for example, some of the cities are so polluted you can hardly live in them, and they can not become more efficient, because efficiency is expensive and it will hurt growth. Our system operates on inefficiency. Efficiency is the opposite of what leads to GDP growth, new jobs and the movement of cash. Therefore there is no chance that the system will survive, because it is fighting efficiency."

On his way to changing the economic system Joseph needs to deal with quite a few bumps and obstacles. First, a matter of degrees: Western culture, he says, is obsessed with the importance it attaches to academic degrees. "They say I'm just a musician," he said in a documentary filmed in 2009. "Throughout history, the thinkers who pointed to the biggest failures are those who arrived from outside the system. Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian doctor who raised the possibility of bacteria and called for doctors to wash their hands, died penniless in a mental hospital. They believed he was crazy.

"The establishment has always fought those who used scientific knowledge in a way that unsettled the establishment and the status-quo. In every intellectual class, and especially in the academic world, there is a desire to preserve all that they have learned. It is particularly common among economists. It's like a religion. But I'm not excited. To be a thinker of culture means to live at the margins of society. The Wright brothers, among the greatest inventors, and Nicola Tesla, the most prominent electrical engineer, were on the margins of society. That's where you can always find great people."

Another obstacle is perhaps the greatest: human nature. The idea that a global society will be conducted efficiently and peacefully, where the responsibility for the allocation of limited resources would be placed on computers, without wars breaking out for control, itself sounds like science fiction. "We are so divided. Since the beginning of humanity we are fighting, and this can not continue. Today we have nuclear weapons. We have technology that can destroy large parts of the planet and destroy us.

"I agree our nature is to want to live at all costs. If the circumstances are such that we have to fight to live, that's what we will do. But what if our sense of survival expands, what if we learn that we should work together to survive? I do not deny human nature, but it always depends on the environment. Our interest is our survival as a species. In the short term you can fight, but in the long run it can kill you. The only solution is to adjust to a way of thinking that is not based on conflict. "

At the moment, Joseph is not showing optimism. "The likely scenario for the future is an ongoing breakdown. What is happening now is unprecedented, and it has no solution because governments are trying to solve the problem using the same methods that created the problem. In the short term I do not see a positive future. But in the longer term, after a "sufficient" number of wars and conflicts and riots, people will understand that fighting is not helplful. At this stage new social approaches will appear, and they will be promoted by movements like ours. We are only one movement among many, and we do not invent new ideas here. A new group of people, probably technology people, will start working on a method for resource management that will not include the anarchy of the modern market, where everyone does whatever they want with the money, and they will try to find a way to allow civilization to survive.

"The problem is the value system. Most of us grew up under terrible circumstances, so we only care about our personal interests. I did not grow up in a wealthy environment, and everybody were concerned only about themselves. I still have these aspects in my personality, and I can not free myself from them. It will take an entire generation to see the results of this deterioration in values, because we have to overcome our emotional baggage, which hitherto seemed to us to be normal. In an ideal world, governments would join forces to create a method that will lead us to an economy with efficient and economical management of resources, with a public health system that would take care of all of us. It can happen, but I doubt whether it would ever happen. There are too many conflicts, and everyone only care for themselves ".

The crises reinforce the extremists

The Zeitgeist Movement's message is extreme for many, but the fact that it is voiced at a time of an almost unprecedented economic crisis makes it much more popular than could have been during the boom that preceded the financial crisis. Economic crises, after all, lead people to listen to conspiracy theories, and many times increase the demand for change and the extent of change required.

Previous economic crises also led to the rise of extremist movements that promised to revolutionize the system. Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany rose to power largely thanks to the widespread resentment created in the public after the economic crises that occurred in these countries in the 30s of the last century.

In 1932, after NationalBank, one of Germany's largest banks, collapsed following the financial crisis, the number of unemployed people in Germany jumped to more than 6 million. Hyper-inflation and the continuing deterioration in the living standards made life in Germany intolerable, allowing the Germans to believe the theories of the Nazis on a bunch of Jewish "international bankers" which brought down the world economy to derive a profit. Those years led to a revolutionary mindset on the left, too, and to a blossoming in the activities of revolutionary movements on the left and right wings - which created the chaotic atmosphere of the time. Soon the public demanded the restoration of order, and this led to the rise of Hitler.

Even the current crisis, the worst since the 1930s, is characterized by escalating demands on the left and the right to change the economic and social system. On the left side of the political map it ignited, in the meantime, the Occupy protest in the U.S. and the global protest movement. On the right side of the map it ignited the American Tea Party movement. In Hungary an extreme right-wing political party came into power, known by its official name as "The Movement for a Better Hungary", and it seems that the country is on the fast lane to a fascist regime.

Last November the British newspaper "The Independent" warned that the world would suffer from years of social unrest and instability because of the economic crisis, which is expected to only worsen. The Economist Nouriel Roubini of New York University, who already in 2006 predicted the crisis, warned that the popular protests that erupted in the Arab world, Israel, Greece and the U.S. will spread and intensify in the coming years - in parallel with the growing crisis of capitalism.