I was prompted to watch Jacque Fresco’s The Choice is Ours, as a serious analysis of our current culture and where we are going. Like many people today, he is concerned with the large issues of environment (global warming), social injustice and the economy; though unlike many who just look at the problems and predict doom, he is trying to look beyond the problems toward a solution.
It is hard not to get emotionally caught up in his vision. He portrays a future where cybernetics makes scientific rational decisions to manage our lives, and we can live either in cities or the country (in houses of his design) with all of our material needs supplied. The images are beautiful and hard to resist (some have viewed it as a cross between 1950’s science fiction and Star Trek). Who can deny that our economy is in trouble and at risk of collapse? Who does not recognize the corruption of governments and their inability to address global problems? And who does not want a society where everyone has their material needs met while at the same time restoring the environment? Much of what he says is easy to agree with, and is rooted in long standing Christian values (social justice, distribution of wealth, meeting everyone’s needs, love as caring for others). These are shared values that are hard to argue with, the differences are in the assumptions and the means by which it is accomplished.
The analysis and promise are appealing, but in spite of his insistence that the vision is not Utopian, I find it otherwise. Nobody would ever choose to apply the label ‘Utopian’ to their own idea and say it is an impossible fantasy, but I find it bears the classic hallmarks. Rather than arguing whether the term applies, it is better to look behind it and how it is argued.
Jacque Fresco’s vision is basically a modernized Marxism based on secular materialism (“There is no one out there to rescue us”), with evil being the fault of the system. Like Marx, he sees economics as being the root fault; but instead of class inequality being the key, he focuses on the Federal Reserve Bank. Instead of a worker’s violent revolution against the proletariat, he sees an inevitable monetary collapse which will bring about the reordering of society (and the end of all monetary systems).
Like Marx (and Roseau before him), there is no intrinsic evil; what we see as evil is just the product of society or the system; and once the current society or system is destroyed then a good and just existence can begin and everyone will be unselfish (with the right re-education). To me these are two keynotes of a Utopian vision; that evil can be eliminated, and an unverifiable faith in the future (on the other side of the cataclysmic ‘event horizon’).
While I am not sure Fresco’s vision is worth the time to critique all of his assumptions (and there are plenty of critiques on the web); because he represents many contemporary Utopian visions, I will go through a number of his common assumptions.
Science is Rational
This is a common assumption of technocratic government or the vision of Al Gore. Science is based on fact and reason, hence free from emotions, opinion or subjective desires that lead to diversity and disagreement. Once the facts are known, everyone can logically come to the same conclusion (stop global warming, support bio-diversity).
This is a half-truth; it is scientism, not science. The scientific method is based on fact and reason, but the scientific method can only give us a probability that a hypothesis is valid (there is a 95% chance of rain in the next hour). Real science does not work this way (see Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). The scientific method can tell us what is; but not what ‘ought’; even deciding which research to spend time on requires a non-scientific value judgment; based on meaning and purpose which are outside of the scope of science.
This bias behind the scientism is seen in his views of education. The classic debate of ‘nature -vs- nurture’, whether our personality is determined by our genes or by our environment (education) continues; but Fresco unquestioningly comes down saying we are totally determined by ‘nurture’. This is not a scientific fact, but a philosophical necessity for his vision; he needs people to be totally ‘plastic’ so education can mold them into the values he needs. If we are genetically predisposed toward violence or greed, we cannot be be made to fit into a peaceful society where we are content with our material needs being satisfied.
Satisfying our Needs
This was the promise of Marxism: ‘Produce according to our ability, and receive according to our needs’. With Fresco, production is taken over by computerized automation and resources are unlimited; we are only left with satisfying our needs (note: he does not say our wants).
But who determines our needs (a computerized analysis)? There were many Christian ascetics who saw their needs as being almost nothing, but they did not impose their standards on everyone else. In Fresco’s vision, everyone is shown with a nice (but moderate) house, food and transportation with access to education, the arts and tennis courts (but what if I want to shoot skeet?). Nowhere does he say how the size of a house is determined, it is assumed that the computers will scientifically decide this, and we will rationally be satisfied with the decision. Replace the Soviet bureaucrats with a computer and it all works out.
There is a major assumption that there is no constraint on material goods, and material needs are all we need for satisfaction. He does not address the problems of inequalities that will invariably exist. While he depicts lovely apartment buildings, how is it determined who lives on the top floor and who on the bottom (preferability being dependent on how well the elevators work). Then there are the jealousies that lead to discord: “why do you love her, is she more beautiful than me?”.
If the solution is education, then will he have education camps (like the Chinese communists)? And how will such education be imposed, he did not show RoboCop patrolling the streets.
The Utopian slight of hand
It was only a while after watching The Choice is Ours that I realized the manipulation of the pitch. In the first part on our present economics and politics, everything was negative; how it is corrupt and will fail. There was nothing good to be said about the Federal Reserve Bank or government – nothing. Yet, when he switched to his vision of the future, everything was perfect without question; assured harmony and peace for all people and nature. This is a very black & white view of reality. Rationally all systems have their good and bad points, so it is easy for him to tap into the frustrations and anger over the flaws and problems of the present; and at the same time appeal to our desire and hope for the ‘peaceable kingdom’. This is not a scientific or reasoned approach; it is an appeal to raw emotions.