Over the last two weeks, Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, the third in a series of apocalyptic cult documentaries, has been screening around the world, translated by devotees of the so-called Zeitgeist movement into more than 30 languages. There were engagements in Buenos Aires and Athens, Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, Mumbai and Tokyo, among hundreds of other cities. In the United States, it showed at indie movie houses, underground bookstores, public libraries, and universities from coast to coast, including a five-day run at New York’s Tribeca Cinemas.
About 30 people turned out for a Wednesday evening showing in Manhattan. After being greeted by earnest volunteers in Zeitgeist T-shirts and given the chance to pick up pamphlets and newsletters about the Zeitgeist movement—or TZM, as its acolytes call it—they sat through a two-and-a-half-hour film, alternately frenetic and soporific, explaining the necessary and imminent collapse of economies based on money, the root of all the world’s sufferings. The film prophesied the emergence of a superior “resource-based economy,” in which decisions about the allocations of goods and services will be made by computers free from corrupting “opinions.” Robots will do most menial work, liberating people for more creative, humanistic pursuits, and technological innovation will ensure abundance for all. The movie ends with scenes of crowds worldwide surging into the streets and, realizing that money is but an enslaving illusion, dumping their cash in great piles in front of the now-impotent central banks. Amazingly, only one person walked out.
Zeitgeist: Moving Forward is silly enough that at times I suspected it was all a put-on, a sly satire about new-age techno-utopianism instead of an example of it. But to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, the Zeitgeist movement is entirely serious. At times, it even seems like the world’s first Internet-based cult, with members who parrot the party line with cheerful, rote fidelity. In a phone conversation, Brenton Eccles, a former member from Melbourne, described how his involvement cut him off from reality. “It’s very, very, very isolating,” says Eccles, who was part of the communications team in the movement’s Australia branch. “You’re encouraged to kind of exit the real world. There’s kind of this us-and-them attitude.” A few days later, he sent me a document recanting most of his charges and claiming that his conflicts with the organization had in fact been his fault. This did not make it seem less cult-like.
There are lots of strange things about the Zeitgeist phenomenon, but strangest is how it got started. It’s a global organization devoted to a kind of sci-fi planetary communism, but it was sparked by a 2007 documentary steeped in far-right, isolationist, and covertly anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The first Zeitgeist documentary borrowed from the work of Eustace Mullins, Lyndon LaRouche, and conspiracy-mad Austin radio host Alex Jones to rail against the cabal of international bankers that purportedly rules the world. It was this documentary that reportedly obsessed Jared L. Loughner, the disturbed young man who allegedly shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Since the shooting, conservatives have latched on to the Zeitgeist movement’s new-age side to argue that Loughner hailed from the left. Others, myself included, have pointed out that the original Zeitgeist film is full of fringe right-wing ideas that have migrated toward the mainstream via the Tea Party. Zeitgeist warns, for example, that the United States could soon be subsumed into a North American Union as a precursor to the establishment of totalitarian one-world government. Members of the Zeitgeist movement, not surprisingly, reject any connection between the shooting and their ideology, even as some of them welcome the new attention that it has brought their ideas. “It’s ultimately a positive thing,” says Keith Embler, the earnest aspiring actor who co-chairs the New York chapter. “It’s press. And”—with the third documentary just released—“the timing couldn’t be better.”
Meanwhile, the evolution of the movement itself remains obscure. How did a modern gloss on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion inspire a global organization of wide-eyed technophile environmentalists? What is the Zeitgeist movement?
The documentary that started it all began as an art project. “The original Zeitgeist was not a film, but a performance piece, which consisted of a vaudevillian style multi-media event using recorded music, live instruments and video,” the Zeitgeist website explains. The director, a young college dropout who goes by Peter Joseph, his first and middle names, says he “tossed” it up online, where it soon was getting hundreds of thousands, then millions, then tens of millions of views on Google Videos. It has since been removed from that site, but several people have posted it on YouTube, where various versions have received millions of views each, and on Vimeo, where it’s been seen almost 600,000 times in the last six months. DVDs of the first two documentaries are also for sale online.
“The work was never designed as a film or even a documentary in a traditional sense—it was designed as a creative, provoking, emotionally driven expression, full of artistic extremity and heavily stylized gestures,” the Zeitgeist website says. This might, however, be a bit of a post-facto rationalization, meant to distance Joseph from some of the reactionary ideas in his film. It certainly doesn’t explain how the piece made the transition from performance art to relatively coherent two-hour documentary.
The original Zeitgeist has a three-part structure, and if you just saw the first third, you might think it came from the left. It begins by arguing, using a characteristic mix of fact and invention, that Christianity is a colossal fraud, a set of myths appropriated from pagan sun cults for purposes of social control. Control is the film’s real theme: All our politics and our institutions, it suggests, derive from a conspiracy of international bankers who manipulate world events for their own profits. The second part argues that Sept. 11 was an inside job, engineered by these moneyed interests. Much of its footage was taken directly from documentaries created by the far-right radio host Alex Jones, whose work is devoted to exposing the global elite’s plan for totalitarian one-world domination.
From there, Zeitgeist launches into a pseudo-exposé of the international monetary system, a theme that runs through both its sequels. According to Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, a think tank that studies right-wing movements, much of it derives from two books: The Creature From Jekyll Island by G. Edward Griffin, a member of the John Birch Society, and Secrets of the Federal Reserve by Eustace Mullins. Mullins hated Jews, but his references to Jews in the book are oblique. “It’s bait, written by one of the world’s most notorious anti-Semites to lead people into that analytical model,” says Berlet.
Zeitgeist works the same way. Though it says nothing about Jews, its analysis mirrors classic anti-Semitic canards. Immediately after footage of the twin towers falling, for example, the film features an excerpt from a speech that Charles Lindbergh gave to an America First group in 1941: “When hostilities commenced in Europe in 1939, it was realized that the American people had no intention of entering the war. But it was realized that this country could be enticed into the war, in very much the same way that it was enticed into the last one.” As his words play, headlines about Iraq float across the screen. “We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction,” he concluded. Lindbergh, of course, was talking about the Jews. Viewers attuned to anti-Semitic rhetoric would naturally conclude that Joseph was, too.
After Joseph put Zeitgeist online, it quickly became an Internet sensation. Clips appeared on the websites of Ron Paul supporters, white nationalists, and, before long, some Tea Party groups. Anarchists and anti-imperialists embraced it as well. Stories about it appeared in newspapers worldwide. Some were admiring: South Africa’s Cape Times compared it to An Inconvenient Truth. Even the debunkers testified to its reach. An article in the Irish Times described the “massive interest” the documentary had attracted before lamenting, “One really wishes Zeitgeist was a masterful pastiche of 21st-century paranoia, a hilarious mockumentary to rival Spinal Tap.”
As Zeitgeist’s audience grew, people started asking Joseph what they should do with his explosive information. He didn’t know what to tell them. He supported Ron Paul, but he believed the system to be too irredeemably corrupt for a political solution. That’s when he met Jacque Fresco, a radical futurist and would-be secular prophet who has been preparing for his moment in the limelight for more than five decades.
Born to a Sephardic Jewish family in Harlem in 1917, Fresco moved to Los Angeles after World War II. The journalist Lionel Rolfe, in his memoir of California bohemia, Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground, wrote that in the early ’50s, “Fresco had a circle of disciples who considered him next only to Albert Einstein, although the friends and relatives of those disciples often thought Fresco was a fraud and a charlatan.”
Back then, Fresco, a self-educated industrial designer, had already developed his ideas about machines making traditional economics irrelevant. In the 1970s, he moved to a compound in Venus, Fla., where he and his partner, Roxanne Meadows, set about creating designs for the cities—and civilization—of the future. They call their work The Venus Project.
Joseph learned about the Venus Project when Fresco, having seen Zeitgeist, sent him one of his books. For Joseph, Fresco’s highly detailed vision of a world without money, a world where work itself is largely unnecessary and human ills like greed and crime are obsolete, was a revelation.
Soon, Joseph was devoting himself to spreading the word about Fresco and The Venus Project. His second film, Zeitgeist: Addendum, starts in much the same vein as the first, with an attack on the international financial system. But then it shifts to a worshipful examination of Fresco’s work, offering it as a solution to the ravages of the current system. Joseph’s latest film, Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, further elaborates Fresco’s irenic vision of a “resource-based economy,” one without poverty, inequality, or environmental strain.
The Zeitgeist movement emerged in 2008, after the release of the second documentary, as chapters formed worldwide to figure out how to prepare for immanent economic collapse and technological salvation. Joseph never acknowledged his massive ideological shift from decrying a one-world system to embracing it—he just powered through the contradictions with an intense, weirdly mesmerizing self-confidence. He seems entirely sure of his movement’s capacity to fundamentally reshape human beings. In the first Zeitgeist newsletter, he explained to a letter-writer why there would be no gluttony in a resource-based economy. “[F]or a person to want ‘more’ than another is an unsustainable, conflict invoking value which serves only a selfish conditioning generated by the current cultural climate of ‘survival of the fittest’ via the Market System of Competition,” he wrote. “TZM seeks to remove this system, hence removing the distorted values that coincide and are hence imposed and reinforced.”
Lots of right-wing fans of the original documentary have since deserted Joseph, though not all—the Zeitgeist newsletter features an essay by a former Ron Paul activist who described trying to get his Tea Party group to embrace Fresco’s ideas. Meanwhile, new cadres of progressive seekers have joined, going to meetings and throwing themselves into the movement’s vibrant online community. At 96, the bearded, impish Fresco suddenly has a large global following—last year, he visited 18 countries on an international lecture tour.
Since 2009, the movement has celebrated Z-day in March, with chapters worldwide putting on events. The New York Times covered the inaugural Z-Day gathering in Manhattan, which attracted a sold-out crowd of around 900 to hear Joseph and Fresco speak. It was, wrote reporter Alan Feuer, “as if Karl Marx and Carl Sagan had hired John Lennon from his ‘Imagine’ days to do no less than redesign the underlying structures of planetary life.” This year’s Z-Day will take place on March 13, with a main event in London and local happenings worldwide.
Most members, particularly the new ones, are probably unaware of the Jew-baiting subtext of the documentary that launched their movement. Many were genuinely baffled in 2009 when a German social networking site, studiVZ, banned Zeitgeist groups because of their implicit anti-Semitism. Others seem a bit embarrassed by the first Zeitgeist; they’ll often say it’s “irrelevant”—one of TZM’s favorite epithets—because it came out before the movement got started. But no one is disavowing it, and so a growing global movement of tech-savvy idealists continues to promote a work of far-right paranoia.
“I’m willing to accept that the filmmaker is a person who has a great energy and tremendous ignorance who inadvertently replicated the Nazi view of money manipulation,” says Berlet. “In which case he needs to repudiate it.” That seems unlikely. In a video interview available online, Joseph rails against his critics, “the self-appointed guardians of the status quo.” The first Zeitgeist, he insists, “is based on pre-existing information. There isn’t one thing in that film that doesn’t come from a source.” True enough. The problem is what the sources are.