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The Zeitgeist Movement:

Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality


(Word count: 10,068 excluding table of contents, figures, footnotes, and bibliography)

"[World history] represents the development of the spirit's consciousness of its own freedom and of the
consequent realization of that freedom. (Hegel, 1975, 138)

Brent Cooper, MSc. Political Sociology


London School of Economics

Abstract:
The recent literature on political sociology and social movements revives the quest to
understand the relationship between social structure and political orientation. It also points to a
complexity turn and suggests that new social movements form an important part of alterglobalization. A new global social movement called The Zeitgeist Movement (TZM) provides a
fruitful case for analysis. With a 500,000 global member base, a broad evolving frame, and a
decentralized, deterritorialized, networked structure of volunteers, TZM is a socio-cultural
force with important political implications. Both TZMs ideology and underlying political
concerns offer interesting insights into the process of globalization and cultural evolution. In
this paper, I demonstrate the salience of the new political sociology approach which entails
the complexity turn, among others both through TZMs self-identification as complexity
movement as well as their networked structural qualities. I will explain TZMs process of
reflexive framing and its popularity based on New Age and conspiracy theory precursors.
Finally, I will discuss the mutual insights between the academic literature and the movements
tenets, principles and beliefs, with regards to complexity, conspiracy, and renewed concerns
over global governance. I offer the following contributions to the literature:
Methodological: N/A
Theoretical: A case study for the new political sociology and a bridge between evolutionary
globalization theory and a systems-conscious global movement: Conspiracy as a systemic
process in global politics, which is denied through the rhetorical defence of power; a connection
between complexity theory and the neglected concept of conspiracy.
Empirical: A case study for the new political sociology and an application of complexity theory to
a new social movement of alter-globalization: A concise account of The Zeitgeist Movement
its size, structure, political orientation; its networked decentralized structure; a distinction
between its ideological and ideational qualities.

(5) Keywords: conspiracy, complexity, zeitgeist, alter-globalization, social movements

Table of Contents
1. Introduction

1.1. Preface

1.2. Background

1.2.1. Case study

1.2.2. Opportunities

2. Literature Review

2.1. The New Political Sociology

2.2. (New-)Social Movements

2.2.1. New Social Movement Theories

2.2.2. Framing

10

2.2.3. Complexity

13

2.3. Conspirituality

15

2.3.1. Conspiracy Theory

15

2.3.2. Conspiracy and Complexity

17

2.3.3. Towards a Theory of Conspiracy

18

3. Case study

20

3.1. What is The Zeitgeist Movement?

20

3.2. Framing, reflexive framing, and counter-framing

21

3.3. TZM and the New Political Sociology

24

3.3.1. The Three Turns

24

3.3.2. Planetary Action System and Ecology of Mind

26

3.4. Utopia(-porn) and Fantasy

29

4. Discussion

31

5. Conclusion

33

6. Bibliography

35

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

1. Introduction
1.1 Preface
We live in a time of global transformations (Held 2003). At hand is The Great
Turning where humanity evolves from a global Empire1 to an Earth Community (Korten
2007). This particular shift is faciliatated in part by a plurality of resistance2 (Hardt and Negri
2004) of NGOs and civil society actors against neoliberal globalization, largely under the rubric
of alter-globalization3 (Pleyers 2010). A new global social movement called The Zeitgeist
Movement (TZM) circa 2008 promotes a critical utopian vision to induce a global
consciousness in others and appears to be an overlooked movement of alter-globalization.
Meanwhile, the social sciences are undergoing a complexity turn, in which a systems approach
and self-organization theory comes to provide a superior explanation to social phenomena and
globalization.
In The New Political Sociology, three turns are outlined along with a novel way to
explain new social movements (Taylor 2010). Walder (2009) articulates what he sees as the
overarching and pressing inquiry for political sociology and social movements: What is the
relationship between social structure, however conceived, and the political orientations of social
movements? (407). In other words, the general question for my case is: What is the underlying
global social structure that prompted the political consciousness of TZM? In this paper, I will
reformulate this question into the following sub-questions:

Korten does not cite Hardt & Negri but he uses Empire in a comparable way.
Term originally from Foucault, M. 1980. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books. (p96)
3
Also known as the alternative globalization movement (AGM), 'alter-globalization' refers to social movements
and NGOs that endorse global cooperation and oppose the damaging consequences of economic globalization and
the related environmental degradation, human rights violations, labor exploitation, and injustice in general, which
are generally viewed as inadequately handled by, if not caused by, the major actors of globalization - states,
institutions, and corporations.
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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

How does TZM fit into the new and complexity models of social
movements, and what does it mean?

What explains the emergence and the frame resonance of TZM?

What can be mutually gained from a dialogue between TZM and academia?

Using TZM as a case study, I will demonstrate the salience of the new political
sociology approach which entails the complexity turn, among others both through
TZMs self-identification as complexity movement as well as their networked structural
qualities. I will explain TZMs process of reflexive framing and its popularity based on New
Age and conspiracy theory precursors. Finally, I will discuss the mutual insights between the
academic literature and the movements tenets, principles and beliefs, with regards to
complexity, conspiracy, and renewed concerns over global governance. In the end, a distinction
will be made between the ideological and ideational aspects of the movement, which will clarify
the contradiction of TZM as both anti-political and pro-social. Understanding TZM through
these frameworks is important because it draws attention to the failure of global political
institutions to cooperate and the systemic nature of conspiracy and deceit in politics, and sheds
light on the emerging global consciousness of environmentalism, humanism, cosmopolitanism,
and secularism, contrasting the persistence of Right-wing fundamentalism.

1.2 Background
1.2.1 Case study
The Zeitgeist Movement (TZM) is a global social movement and sustainability
advocacy organization imbued with a philosophy of transcending institutions of social control
and promoting equitable globalization. TZM is both an ideological and ideational movement
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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

for progressive global social change. It can also be seen as a self-appointed cultural
manifestation of public sociology; that is, its an attempt to educate people about social control
by way of sociological critique, using mostly behaviouristic and classical social theory.
Simultaneously, its self-described authority is premised on embracing of the principles of
systems-theory, emergence, and complexity. They argue that this science is neglected in public
knowledge and policy, due to political partisanship, compromise, and institutionalized elite
dominance. TZM promotes a secular, apolitical, and cosmopolitan worldview and calls for the
democratic construction of a world council to control resources as a solution to the worlds
problems. In their own words, its primary practical mission in the long-term is "the advocation
of a Global Resource-Based Economy (RBE)... [which is a] money-less economic system which
is based explicitly on the optimized, strategic management of all earthly resources" (TZM B).
This system of allocating resources can be best understood as anarcho-communism. The RBE
ideology is taken from Jacques Frescos The Venus Project, which as of 2011 has dissociated
itself with the movement due to disputes over control of TZM, although TZM continues to
promote the idea of an RBE (TZM A).
TZM attracts scorn and incredulity for its conspiracist backdrop and limited
understanding of economics, but continues to reflexively articulate itself through
documentaries, lectures, podcasts, and member interaction/discussion. Founded in the US by
Peter Joseph, TZM represents a 500,000+ global member base, and its internet films register
over 100 million views combined.4 In my estimation, it represents an important and neglected
dimension of alter-globalization and is entirely absent from such literature. TZM has never
been formally studied, yet it is central to the study of new social movements, ideology,

4

This is the figure given on their website. It is difficult to ascertain an exact figure as the estimate is based on
various versions of the videos posted, taken down, and reposted, and on different sites over time, giving us the
plausible approximation. In some cases it is claimed as high as 200M views.

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

globalization and world government described herein. Thus, it is vitally important given its
massive scale, its progressive ideational and ideological aspects, and the fact that it has been
overlooked by scholars.
1.2.2 Opportunities
Clear gaps and opportunities exist in much of the literature in political sociology and
social movements (Edelman 2001; Turner 2010; Walder 2009). Edelmens (2001) review article
sets the stage for the shift by deflating the popular supremacy of the political process social
movement models (291) of McAdam et al (1996) to approaches that have more global
applicability and attention to historicity (struggle over ideation). Taylor argues for a paradigm
shift or turn towards a new political sociology based on three prominent turns in sociology:
cultural, global, complexity, and a proposed fourth existential turn (2010). Globalization is
radically transforming identities and political structures into new and hybrid forms, but there
are many competing schools of thought. At the end of a decade of frenetic debates over
globalization, Cabrera (2010) reviews re-emergence of the idea of world government, which had
its heyday in the late 1940s and takes a new form today which demands inquiry, and parallels
TZMs interest in global control. Cox and Nilsen (2007) comment on the embarrassing paucity
of academic social movement research as it relates to the movement of movements (alterglobalization) and global civil society (434). Many scholars argue that ethnographic approaches
to social movements are underutilized (Burdick 1995; Cox and Nilsen 2007; Plows 2008;
Wolford 2006). Plows (2008) argues that more action research is needed, where ethnography
can help understand grassroots events and enable capacity building across research efforts
(1523). More specifically, scholars argue that the most promising sites for intellectual
creativity [are the dialogues] between activist and academic theorising, typically on an
interdisciplinary basis (Cox and Nilsen 2007, 435). Finally, Edelman (2001) concludes

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

ethnographic analysis is best for examination of the broader social field, rather than a singleissue focus.
Thus, The Zeitgeist Movement offers a plethora of research opportunities on multiple
levels. In addition to above insights, a fruitful background framework comes from Ward and
Voas (2011), who describe the recent emergence of a hybrid belief system, which they have
termed conspirituality.5 A portmanteau of conspiracy and spirituality, it refers to the
combination of an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of
alternative worldviews (103). According to Ward and Voas, TZM began as but one facet of the
conspiritual web movement, and is just starting to grow outside the internet. In addition, the
academic study of conspiracy theory is still largely neglected in mainstream sociology,
although a handful of scholars are beginning to take note of its ethno-sociological value (Dean
2000; Marcus 1999; Melley 1999; West and Saunders 2003). This designation of TZM as
conspiritual is based on its films, and accounts for its initial frame success. However, to be
clear, TZM as a movement distinguishes itself from the films, which are the creative expressions
of Peter Joseph and serve as inspiration for the movement due to their online success and
overall message of seeking truth, peace and sustainability in society (TZM B). Thus, the films
are an important part of the attraction for some while they act as a deterrent for others. In
examination of the contrast we can reveal the true nature of the movement and its relevance to
the study of political sociology, globalization, and systems-theory.

The word itself was coined within the culture, by Vancouver based hip-hop group of the same name.

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

2. Literature Review
This section begins with a discussion of the new political sociology, then reviews
theories of new social movements (NSM) and framing, which leads to complexity theory and its
implications for globalization. The literature review concludes with an exposition on the recent
concept of conspirituality which informs the background character of TZM, while also
indirectly highlighting the habitual academic neglect of conspiracy as systemic. Some reference
to TZM will be weaved in where necessary, but is mostly reserved for the case study.

2.1 The New Political Sociology


Power is the central concern of political sociologists (Taylor 2010, 13). We ask where it
comes from, what shape does it take, and what are its relational effects in society? Moreover, in
modernity power is expressed in systemic forms of ideation that had a marked impact on
patterns of self- and social identification and thus, the related concepts of ideology and identity
are integral to the study of power (Ibid.). TZM is a new social movement that concerns itself
largely with hidden power and how political, religious, and economic conspiracies obfuscate
issues of social reality, equality, and sustainability. Thus, questions of power, identity, and
ideology are central to this case and what Taylor calls the new political sociology and this case.
In Taylors school of thought, the new social movement paradigm is post-labour(industrial), and has shifted to post-materialist values (103). The new political sociology of social
movements redirects its attention away from state power and towards the exercise of extraterritorial or supranational power and authority by institutions such as the World Economic
Forum or the International Monetary Fund. NSMs are non-instrumental and targeted at civil
society and symbolic politics as opposed to state institutions (107). Although political
sociologys popularity has been in decline due to the various turns explained herein, I contend
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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

(with Taylor) that this presents opportunities, which can also adapt classical insights into the
new paradigm (15).
Bottomore argues that a key focus of political sociology should be how social movement
organisations relate to society and influence the determination of power (Ibid.). Touraines view
is that social movements should be the primary subject of sociology because social relations
arise from social action which is embodied in social movements (108). Taylor articulates that
sociology is tasked with interpreting historical cases in order to show what conditions underlie
the form of society and to address the consequences that follow. I follow these guideposts into
uncharted territory to analyze an NSM that appears to identify with the major themes of new
political sociology. An analysis of TZM will expose both a distinct popular conception of
power as well as the underlying relations of power which explain the cause and structure of the
movement. As mentioned, the new political sociology is the result of three turns in the social
sciences: cultural, global, and complexity. These turns mark the shift from
instrumentalism towards complex forms of de-territorialized identity politics (122). They can
be seen comparatively in Fig. 1.
Cultural turn
- Focus on social construction of
identity and the relationship
between action and meaning
(125).
- Struggle over historicity;
contestation of knowledge (108);
meaning as fluid
- Postmodernism (108)
- Increasing reflexivity (110)
- Rejection of metanarratives
(19-20)

Global turn
- Highlights progressive role in
globalized reflexive modernity;
generates new identities and
opens spaces in network society
(125).
- Misalignment of power,
citizenship and identity with the
nation state.
- New global elite/ superclass.
- Risk society; Second
modernity; Cosmopolitanism
(Beck)
- Alternative globalization
(alter-globalization)

Complexity turn
- Metaphor of NSMs as global
fluid, highlighting non-linearity
of effects and mobilization (125).
- Many key theorists use
complexity ideas implicitly (see
Giddens; Harvey; Hardt &
Negri; Castells; Urry; Beck)
- in his analysis of the crisis and
contradictions of capitalism,
Marx constituted a complexity
theorist avant la lettre (Taylor,
25).
- Emphasis on system evolution
and self-organization.

Fig. 1 (constructed from information in Taylor, pp. 19-22, 108-110, 125)

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

New social movements and TZM especially embody all these turns. There are still
some movements that are appropriate for old frameworks, such as labour movements, but they
are increasingly marginal, or integrating into the complex plane of alter-globalization. Chesters
and Welsh (2006) are also engaged in this postmodern project, as they propose a qualitative
sociology following from the popular yet contentious Empire and Multitude works by Hardt and
Negri (2000 and 2004 respectively). Their work is an application of complexity theory to the
alternative globalization movement (AGM), of which they note Peoples Global Action (PGA)
and the World Social Forum (WSF) are the two most prominent examples, inspired in large
part by the Zapatista movement in Mexico. This approach also follows from Deleuze and
Guattari, where life is emphasized as a process of becoming over being (Taylor 2010, 120).
The shift described here has divided social movement scholars over whether the state or the
ambiguous global domain is the primary actor (3). This line of argument undermines the
conventional globalization debate by displacing state-centred models through the complexity
turn and the theory of self-organization.
Notably scarce in the new political sociology literature are case studies and empirical
data. One reviewer lauds Taylors theoretical discussion, but laments the lack of evidence
despite its existence (Orum 2011, 351). The first and oft-cited case of the systems approach to
global social movements was the Zapatistas. Their numbers are only around 3000, which pales
in comparison to the half of a million for TZM. Taylor describes the Zapatistas as an
informational guerrilla movement that eschews Marxism and vanguardism (115), which can
also describe the character of TZM quite accurately (TZM C, 2:13:00), if not better. Thus, I
argue here that TZM is a more appropriate application of the new political sociology and global
complexity. As we will see, TZMs rhizomatic, apolitical, and normative global character make
it more consistent with NSM theories and new political sociology. Most importantly, its strong

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

alternative media presence on the web has come to constitute its dynamic identity and serve as
its engine of growth. Before entering the discussion of complexity, it is useful to give a brief
analysis of TZM though new social movement theories and frame alignment.

2.2 (New-)Social Movements


2.2.1 New Social Movement Theories
Social movements are means by which ordinary people participate in group displays and
campaigns to make collective claims on others (Tilly 2004). Tilly identifies three major
features: campaigns, repertoire, and displays of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment
(WUNC). Tarrow defines the root of social movements as a contentious collective action by
(Tarrow 2011, 7) of unrepresented groups directed against elites or powerful institutions. He
acknowledges that some social movements can be apolitical, as their values are formed with
(dis-)respect to those authorities who prescribe the norms of society (8). In other words, NSMs
grassroots networked approach is targeted at transforming culture and ideology.
On this point, Buechler offers a typological distinction between political and
cultural versions of new social movement theory (Buechler 1995, 441). He acknowledges the
false dichotomy between idealized versions (451) but insists there is a sufficient distinction
between them (see Fig. 2) for classification. Beuchler was early in identifying the major
theoretical trends in new social movements exemplified in the work of Castells, Touraine,
Habermas, and Melucci; which Taylor and Chesters & Welsh would later independently
observe, and McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald would simply ignore. Brandt calls these types of
movements metapolitical in that they have subtle effects on consciousness-raising, political
socialization, and the politicization of decision making (Buechler, 451). Melucci argues that it
is for the better that new social movements are apolitical because that frees them from the

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

constraining rules determined by existing power-holders (452). Playing by those rules makes
the movement vulnerable to co-option. Thus, new social movements apolitical, metapolitical,
or even pre-political nature can be counted as a strength (Ibid.). It is evident from comparison
in Fig. 2 that TZM is more a cultural form of social movement. Most relevant to TZM are how
the cultural version Eschews strategic concerns in favour of symbolic expressions and sees
political movements as co-optable (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 (Buechler 1995, 457).


2.2.2 Framing
McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald (1996, 8th printing 2006), three of the major scholars in
the social movement literature, point to political opportunity structure, resource mobilization,
and framing processes as the most salient theoretical approaches. The first two approaches are
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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

of much less relevance in the case of TZM, as it is apolitical, global, and loosely organized.
Framing is typically the most popular approach, and although the literature on framing is
inconclusive and contradictory, as Chesters and Welsh (2006, 15) contend, it may be too early
in the movements life to appreciate the relevance of the other approaches. As McAdam et al
state (1996), the focus of research naturally shifts over the evolution of the movement (17).
According to Snow and Benford, framing processes are a crucially important dynamic in
understanding the identity and trajectory of social movements (Snow & Benford 2000, 611).
Deriving the concept from Goffman, a frame is a schemata of interpretation that allows
individuals to perceive, process, and label events and issues so as to identify with them, and
thus inform and guide their own action (614). Framing concerns the consolidation of actionoriented sets of beliefs and meanings that inspire and legitimate the activities and campaigns of
a social movement organization (SMO) (Ibid.).
Where do frames come from? McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald (1996) argue that it is
intuitively apparent that framing processes are more likely effective where there is strong
organization (8). They articulate a suspicion that framings would not arise unless from a
homogenous group engaged in regular contact (Ibid.). Furthermore, they argue framing is
equally collectively determined in the beginning as in the later days of the movement (16).
These assertions are contradictory in the case of TZM. Framing is of crucial significance in the
birth of the movement and its ongoing articulation, but in this case, initial framing led by one
man preceded the organization of the movement, and the followers gained were fragmented
and heterogeneous to begin with. What explains the success of the initial TZM frame is Peter
Josephs tapping into the existing zeitgeist of conspirituality and the need for utopian hope,
which will be elaborated on in the case study.

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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

However, Chesters and Welsh (2006) stress a point consistent with McCarthy et al,
which is not to overemphasize the influence of movement intellectuals over ordinary
participants (15). Pleyers (2010) dissents from this view, arguing that intellectuals are crucial
to grassroots movements, as experts come to unify knowledge for citizen-activists to take
collective action on a legitimized social base (128-9). I tend to share Pleyers assessment here; in
the context of TZM Peter Joseph and a handful of other movement intellectuals express a
master frame that resonates with a diverse audience, who in turn help generate the frame
indirectly through their engagement with a multiplicity of views. In this sense, TZMs
resonance can be explained through the intersection of the existing individual frames of
conspirituality and anti-neoliberalism, which are then projected through high-def media in
documentary form.
Where McAdam et al are correct is that framing will become more conscious and
strategic as the movement grows, and will be moderated by contestation both internally and
externally. This has proven to be the case as TZM has attracted more (pseudo-)intellectuals of
the Zeitgeist ideology to adapt and propagate variations of its message. Likewise, the second
film (which prompted the movement) and latest instalment (Zeitgeist: Moving Forward) continue
to revise TZMs frame and purpose. Thus, as Peter Joseph may be the primary author of
present and forthcoming works, it is evident through the engagement of others, and the flexible
and heterogeneous views of members, that the frame is reflexive and evolving, and that TZM is
a force of its own outside the framing.
The traditional framing theory neglects the impact of information and communication
technologies (ICT), which play a major role in NSMs and the new political sociology. What
Chesters and Welsh (2006) call Computer Mediated Communications (CMC) greatly increases
the framing abilities of actors upgrades the connectivity of the movement milieu (9). They

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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

argue that the AGM, and its concomitant modes of expression, are inaccessible by
conventionally nation-state focused social movement and framing models. This leads to the
idea of reflexive framing, meaning a process of frame generation through reflexive iteration
facilitated by computer-mediated communications (CMC) (189). Here, iteration is correlative
with Deleuzes becoming and the idea of emergence through repetition. The key features of
reflexive framing are recognition of network actor identity, rejection of political opportunity
structures, use of CMC, and the sense-making ontological security it provides the subscriber
(Ibid.). Regarding the last feature, movements are ontologically empowered to act against
complexity through strategic knowledge (200). The function is best summarized in their own
words:
Anomie is transcended through the exchange of views and the realization that
reflexive criticality is not an individual quirk but is in fact a widely experienced and
appropriate mode of response to the neo-liberal axiomatic. This normalization of critical
reflection empowers movement members to physically confront the economic and
political institutions associated with negative lifeworld impacts (Chesters and Welsh
2005, 199).
2.2.3 Complexity
Chesters and Welsh (2006) invoke the concept of plateau (from Bateson, Deleuze and
Guattari) to stress the utility of complexity (15). They define plateau as the spaces of
intensive networking (Chesters and Welsh 2005, 189) where a sustained plane of intensity
not intended to result in any form of climactic outcome or pre-ordained conscious denouement
(2006, 20). As it follows from the concept of reflexive framing, Chesters and Welsh (2006)
stress how Bateson emphasized the systemic social and cultural importance of framing (14)
and suspension of outcome prioritising the maintenance of intensity through process (15).
These models and metaphors are exemplary of TZM character and goals. In contrast, Goffman
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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

stressed the importance of outcome and the impact it made on the individual. Minkoff and
McCarthy (2005) also suggest new lines of research in the conceptualization of social
movements as organizational fields (289), which closely resembles plateaux, except still set
in the older paradigm of social movements. A plateaux, as it pertains to new movements, refers
to how movements network and reconfigure themselves through affective links, weak ties and
emergent forms of discursive democracy (Chesters and Welsh 2005, 189). Chesters and Welsh
(2006), following Deleuze and Guattari, describe the links between social movement networks
as rhizomes which refers to the root system of a tree (102); hence rhizomatic. In this sense, it
is also a metaphor for being underground as well as organic and complex.
Collectively the AGM forms plateaux of resistance, which are derided by the powers
that be whom Chesters and Welsh describe as those who recognise its emergent properties
and potential [of the AGM] to systematically perturbate dominant discourses and ideologies of
neo-liberalism (Chesters and Welsh 2006, 1). The emergence of the AGM reveals how
reflexive framing helps provide for the ontological security by connecting individual and
planetary milieux (Taylor 2010, 122). Melucci calls this a planetary action system:
As global flows increasingly escape the capacity of national regulation, so the
conflictual axiomatic of denumerable sets provides the context for the heterogenesis of
what Melucci (1989) conceived as a complex planetary action system: a system whose
complexity increases through systemic feedback facilitated by the assimilation of
computer-mediated communications in all aspects of social life and historically
unprecedented levels of mobility (Urry, 2000). (Chesters and Welsh 2005, 191)
In other words, a planetary action system is a social zeitgeist of global awareness and
action that emerges through the increasing global communications, social interactions, and
potentialities of mobility (Taylor 2010, 121), and forms a plateaux of resistance by movement
capacity-building through cross-fertilization techniques (Chesters and Welsh 2005, 190).
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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

Chesters and Welsh argue that this entire line of thinking is synergistic and commensurate
with complexity theory and the experiences of the actors in alter-globalization (189). As we
will see in the case study, TZM forms a critical part of the alter-globalization movement,
through its appreciation of complexity theory and its highly networked and decentred
operations.

2.3 Conspirituality
2.3.1 Conspiracy Theory
As explained above, conspirituality reflects a synthetic belief system that fuses
conspiracy theory and a new-age outlook. It can be best understood as a means by which
political cynicism is tempered with spiritual optimism. It curbs the belligerence of conspiracy
theory and the self-absorption of the New Age (Ward and Voas 2011, 108). In this sense, the
notions complement each other, but also modify the meaning of each other, to become less
dogmatic. What is central to the new ideology is the promotion of a shift in consciousness
(106, 113), both in intellectual and spiritual terms, away from sovereign power structures
towards more transcendent truths.
Ward and Voas survey a wide landscape of conspirituality (which had offline precursors
dating at least to the 60s) and its component aspects. These include many fringe beliefs and
ideologies, from spiritual beings, to UFOs, to Illuminati, however Ward and Voas argue that
the middle ground is extensive: mass audiences bought Confessions of an Economic Hitman,
downloaded Zeitgeist: the movie, and listen to Muse (Ward and Voas, 114).6 It is here that we

6

Perkins book, Confessions of an Economic Hitman (2004), was a NY Times bestseller for over a year (Ward &
Voas, 111). Academic reviews of the book were generally positive, at least giving credence to Perkins account
(Gezici 2008; Pilisuk 2010; Wakatake 2006; MacKenzie 2006), although perhaps disagreeing with his analysis and
conclusions. One reviewer attacked Perkins credibility and claims altogether (Snyder 2005). Despite the general
acceptance, no academic work has seriously addressed the implications in a wider framework.

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are concerned with the successful resonance of TZM with mass audiences, in terms of
membership as well as non-members who merely absorb the documentaries and related media.
In order to understand what makes this frame resonate so well with global masses, we must
understand the conspiracy logic that underpins globalization, as they see it.
First, it must be repeated that the movement is not the movies; a conflation that Ward
and Voas make.7 There is no question that the films frame a controversial social critique in a
compelling way that attracts members in the first place. However, TZMs clear goals of
sustainability consciousness purposefully exclude anything related to the controversial aspects
of the films, except for the Resource-Based Economy. Nevertheless, the movement itself, I
contend, still fundamentally highlights a prevalent conspiratorial worldview that is active
inside and outside the movement. I do not intend to embark on an exegesis of conspiracy
theory, as there is no room here, but I will demonstrate that it is not a case closed matter.
Furthermore, I wish to reveal the relationship between conspiracy and complexity, and the
historical consequences for globalization.
There are two identifiable paradigmatic turns which can shed light on conspiracy and
belief in it, and a third which I propose. The first psychopathological was definitively laid
out by Hofstadter (1996 [1964]), who brilliantly excoriated the paranoid style of belief everpresent in American politics. This view is still salient in many respects, and is a popularly
referenced academic approach (see Pipes 2007). The second ethnosociological gives due
attention to the perception of the skeptic of political power or whistleblower of a conspiracy
(Hellinger 2003, 208). While the former approach is seen as disempowering, the latter can
serve popular resistance (205). And while Hofstadters approach still dominates much of the

7

Ward and Voas give Zeitgeist a very superficial treatment, based on only the first film. Furthermore, they
misidentify Jacques Fresco as both creator of first film and movement (2011, 114). He was neither, but rather
merely the inspiration (and partner to an extent) for Peter Joseph.

16

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

mainstream medias discourse (used as a means of rhetorical warfare between the Left and
Right or against the public), the latter is reflected in a growing body of literature (Dean 2000;
Marcus 1999; Melley 1999; West and Saunders 2003), although it is still alien to mainstream
social theory.
2.3.2 Conspiracy and Complexity
The third turn I propose regards the actual investigation of the nature of conspiracy
itself, marking a shift away from the nature of belief and disparaging theorizers. This turn is
concordant with the complexity turn, and appreciates the systemic, emergent, and selforganizing qualities of conspiracy, as well as network theory approaches study the connections
between organized crime and legitimate structures and institutions. Some of the authors in the
ethnosociological camp point the way forward. Melley describes how conspiracy no longer
refers to a secret plot led by a handful of insiders, but rather a broad array of social controls"
institutionalized in a large organization, technology, or system -- a powerful and obscure entity so
dispersed that it is the antithesis of the traditional conspiracy (Melley 1999, 8). Dean agrees in
that conspiracy theory makes more sense in terms of informational networks of power where
potentialities for agency and secrecy dynamically meet (Dean 2000, paragraph 10).
For the complexity turn in conspiracy, we need to understand the long scholarly
philosophy of history that sees globalization as a process of unification through cultural
hybridization and the emergence of world government. Aside from its ancient roots, this idea
extends notably from Kant and Hegel, through Marx, to H.G. Wells, Einstein, and the idealists
of the early 20th century, to modern IR scholarship spearheaded by Alexander Wendt (See
Wendt 2003). In Cabreras (2010) review article, he recounts the prominent shift of IR scholars
towards realizing global government (511), and the empirical tendency towards its emergence
(513-516). Cabreras summary also includes the efforts of politicians and diplomats, who both

17

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

understand these processes, and promote understanding and integration of the world through
them (513).
This post-national view is perfectly exemplified in Bill Clintons (2006) explicit
promotion of the book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, which endorses a teleological
vision of world evolution. In a recent article from evolutionary biology, Vermeij (2011) paves
the way forward an understanding of the positive feedback system between producers and
consumers as producing a historical conspiracy (187). In short, the logic of living together
conspires to produce historical change in predictable direction in the long run (202). This
directionality is an emergent property of living systems (Ibid.), and that direction is towards
complexity and interdependence. Although Vermeij challenges Nonzero on the particulars,
there is a certain congruence between them. For Wendt and these likeminded scholars, this
anarchic ecology inevitably (but not invariably) tends towards a stable end state. To
conceptually integrate this train of thought, in their analysis of evolutionary globalization
Denemark et al (2000) introduce their work by confessing Our approach is unabashedly
historical materialist (3).
2.3.3 Towards a Theory of Conspiracy
To return to the issue at hand, the paranoia of conspiracy has, in the broadest sense,
always been about fear of global domination by unseen powers; a New World Order. And much
of New Age theology has always been about spiritual awakening into a global consciousness.8
The common thread integrating conspirituality is a holistic view of globalization. Whereas
conspiracy theory views a top-down process of power, spirituality envisages a bottom-up antipower and resistance. Both views have a certain consciousness of how domestic/local political
and religious prerogatives are short term oriented, exclusive in terms of ignoring the Other,

8

an organic transcendence of traditional religion; Gaia hypotheses of Earth; and more recently humanity as
superorganism.

18

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

and negate optimal solutions to problems. Thus, conspirituality leads us back to an examination
of the nature of conspiracy itself, and its systemic manifestations in politics, business,
economics (banking/finance),9 and religion. In the interests of brevity, I will address some
relevant research on political conspiracy only.
One major subfield is that of state crimes against democracy (SCAD), which is an
empirical alternative to conspiracy theorizing (deHaven-Smith 2010, 797). SCADs occur where
the interests of national security intersect with domestic presidential politics (806). SCADs are
a unique form of political corruption in that they employ political, military, and/or economic
elites at the very highest levels of the social and political order (795). One notable example is
the character assassination of Joseph Wilsons wife over the disputed premise of the Iraq War
(797). The potential for this field extends much deeper. The evidence that 9/11 was at least a
cover-up of sorts is now ample, although it may still be far from being accepted. Picking up
from the accusation of the 9/11 Commission authors themselves that they were set up to fail
(Kean et al 2006) by the Bush Administration, the attraction of alternate explanations has
persisted in non-paranoid minds. Top counter-terrorism advisor to the Bush and Clinton
administrations, Richard Clarke (2011), continues to assert that the CIA covered its duplicitous
relationship with some of the hijackers. And recently, distinguished IR scholar John
Mearsheimer published a systemic analysis of the nature and role of lying in international
politics, and how deception is actually used more often against a states own people than in
diplomacy, most conspicuously in justifying the Iraq War, and in the war itself (2011).
The underlying point is that none of these sub-disciplines are yet synthesized into a
field of conspiracy studies, but they express many similar themes, and establish a particular
pattern within the framework of globalization that is presently outside the mainstream

9

That international banking is a fraudulent enterprise is now part of the mainstream media discourse its validity
aside. See documentary Inside Job (2010) and Dylan Ratigan (2011) on MSNBC.

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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

discourse. Ironically, a major branch of political sociology deals with hidden elite power
(Domhoff 2006; Korten 2001; Michels 1966; Mills 1956), but it has always managed to skirt
conspiracy itself. Furthermore, all these theoretical observations are consistent which each
other, rather than conflicting. We now turn to the case study of The Zeitgeist Movement and
how it is a new social movement of alter-globalization that critically draws our attention to
the themes of complexity and conspiracy.

3. Case study
In this section, I will describe the characteristics of TZM and address how their
discourse, membership, and activities are concordant with the theoretical framework laid out in
the literature review. In particular, its normative global nature, the reflexive framing employed
by TZM, and the certain affinity with systems theory, emergence, and complexity, make it an
archetypal example for new social movements of alter-globalization and the new political
sociology. Lastly, an examination of its utopian character offers constructive value as well as
ideological traps.

3.1 What is The Zeitgeist Movement?


The social values and problems of our society manifested in: warfare, corruption, oppressive
laws, social stratifications, superstition, environmental destruction, and a despotic ruling class
(are) fundamentally the result of a collective ignorance of two of the most basic insights humans
can have about reality: the emergent and symbiotic aspects of natural law (Joseph, Z: Addendum,
1:29:10-45).

Only a brief re-introduction is necessary due to the background already given, and
description throughout this paper. TZM describes itself as a grassroots sustainability advocacy

20

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

organization with global outreach "(whose) principle focus includes the recognition that the
majority of the social problems which plague the human species... (is caused by) an out-dated
social structure" (TZM D) and more specifically a social pathology (TZM E). The movement
is informed by three freely distributed internet documentary films which present what I
describe as critical utopianism with a scientific anarcho-communist prescriptive solution.
Furthermore, the website hosts a small catalogue of official lectures and essays. Broadly put, it
presents a synthesized emancipatory worldview based on the implicit themes of
cosmopolitanism, secularism, the explicit themes of systems-thinking, and promise of postscarcity globally redistributive (resource-based) economics. These perspectives challenge the
conventional paradigms of nationalism, religion, modernism, and neoliberal capitalist
globalization, respectively. TZM is nothing short of radical in its wide-reaching principles and
long-term projects, yet as a cultural NSM, in the context of the complexity theory and
conspirituality discussed here, it fills an important space in the alter-globalization movement.

3.2 Framing,10 reflexive framing, and counter-framing


TZMs exposure and growth in its early stages can be attributed to its clear yet broad
and reflexive frame. The first Zeitgeist film amalgamates and slightly modifies the pre-existing
frames of anti-religion (parallels the new atheism) and conspiracy theory (both political and
economic varieties). The later films, from which the movement is influenced, add its blended
social theory and techno-utopian vision which depend on shifting attention to environmental
sustainability and systems thinking. This constitutes a master frame ossified in its film and
media presentations which synthesize these critical worldviews (sub-frames) into a popular
digestible form (ultimately conveniently compressed into one word: Zeitgeist).

10

In the internet age, a useful way to appreciate the resonance of a frame might be a meme, as it highlights its
ability to digitally replicate itself through popular social transmission, but discussion is left out for lack of space.

21

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

Goffmans dramaturgical approach is especially fruitful when we consider the chapter


titles of the first film: The Greatest Story Ever Told; All the World's a Stage; Don't Mind
the Men Behind the Curtain. These three parts are meant to denote both the real and symbolic
forms of manipulative power in operation in the respective realms of religion, politics, and
economics/ banking. Zeitgeist sees world history as a theatrical narrative dominated by elites,
and this is a popular narrative that extends beyond conspiracy theory. This film was an
admittedly artistic piece in vaudevillian fashion rather than true documentary (TZM F). It
spread virally on the internet due to its resonance with mass audiences.
The second film, titled Zeitgeist: Addendum (2008) further developed the criticism of
monetary economics, introduced its utopian vision of society along with a systems-theory
critique of traditional socio-political institutions. The sequel effectively dropped the conspiracy
theory and anti-religion arguments replacing them with a broader and more reasonable critique
of social control. It also merged with The Venus Project, which is Jacque Frescos technoutopian conception of a Resource-Based Economy. The third film, subtitled Moving Forward,
is divided into four sections called Human Nature, Social Pathology, Project Earth, and
Rise; all with a stronger emphasis on sociological critique, legitimized by interviews of eight
academics spliced throughout the film.11
Taylor (2010) stressed how the bigger the emphasis on internal validity of frames, the
less it explains collective action and the more it neglects cultural contestation (111). This is
why TZMs frame continues to become more diffused over time, by rejecting its first film,
initiating its Media Project, and being abandoned by TVP. Counter-intuitively, collective
action is explained at once by the resonance of the underlying frame of the global
problematique and its proposed prescription (TVP), while the cultural contestation of reflexive

11

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, Dr. Gbor Mt, Richard Wilkinson, Dr. James Gilligan, Dr. John McMurtry, Dr. Behrokh
Khoshnevis, Dr. Adrian Bowyer, Dr. Colin J. Campbell

22

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

framing empowers individuals to have a persona voice contra the frame. Peter Joseph is very
influential as a public intellectual to the movement and the major function of CMCs help
facilitate reflexive framing.
TZMs Media Project, launched in 2010, engages members to create artistic works that
reflect the themes of social awareness (TZM G). As this is an individual process, with no
particular guidelines, it contributes to the reflexive framing of the movement. As Taylor
argued, the greater focus on consistency of frames neglects the cultural contestation involved,
and fails to explain collective action. In the case of TZM, members can individually undermine
mainstream discourses through a personal expression via the Media Project. Further to the
argument of reflexive framing, in April 2011 TVP took issue with TZMs flexibility and openended direction and decided to divorce themselves from the movement. TZM also claimed that
TVP were displeased that TZM did not solicit donations (TZM A). TZM insists this break
does not affect long run operations, or pursuit of a RBE, but rather indicates TZM is no longer
bound to the rigidity of TVPs technical dream.
In TZM, previous new age movements and conspiracist perspectives that lacked
legitimacy and unity have now congealed into the material force that is its membership and
viewership. At the same time, it has caused rifts with other minority movements such as
prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Joness info-wars crusade or the more underground
Anonymous hacktivist group. At times, Jones has been hostile to TZM, but has interviewed
Peter Joseph in the interests of resolution (Jones 2009). Anonymous (2010) has posted many
vitriolic videos aimed at the destruction of TZM. In contrast to other movements, I restate that
TZM is very important to new social movement theories, complexity and globalization
studies, and conspirituality, due to its massive official constituency (500,000 +/-), and

23

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

provocative worldview. Moreover, to call it a conspiracy movement when it is criticized by


more conspiratorial movements would be a misnomer.
From the scant academic literature, although published a year after the second film, one
article gives only a synopsis of the first film, with little critical commentary, and no reference to
the movement (see Chapman 2009, 173). In the mainstream press, a handful of reviews have
expressed a curiosity about the movement, but little depth is given (see Donovan 2010; Feuer
2009; Swan 2009). The New York Times reports; its 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 (Feuer 2009). Feuer, perhaps unintentionally, succinctly sums up the major
thematic inspirations of TZM, which happen to be great thinkers in terms of social theory,
science, and music/ art/ spirituality, respectively. Nevertheless, TZM is too radical to be taken
seriously by the mainstream press. Subsequently, there has been no press coverage of the ZDay 2011 in London.

3.3 TZM and the New Political Sociology


3.3.1 The Three Turns
The Zeitgeist Movement is not a political movement. It does not recognize nations, governments,
races, religions, creeds or class. Our understandings conclude that these are false, outdated
distinctions which are far from positive factors for true collective human growth and potential.
Their basis is in power division and stratification, not unity and equality, which is our goal.
(TZM D)

This declaration of political abstention exemplifies its postmodern and cultural


character and orientation as a new social movement. TZM is inherently political nonetheless,
as all its denials are directed at vested interests with political influence who distort
communication. It is also indirectly political by promoting a shift in political consciousness at
24

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

the grassroots level. Furthermore, it can be seen as anti-political in its denial of the nature of
power; power which is necessarily mediated through politics. TZM embodies the three turns of
new political sociology both in rhetoric as well as in practice, in the following ways:
Cultural turn: For Touraine, the cultural turn highlights the way in which class
struggles revolve around reflexive control over ideology, identity, and information for the
purpose of social change; in other words, a struggle over historicity (Taylor 2010, 108). TZM
is a protest against the hegemonic influence of the older social order and neoliberal dominated
globalization. Control over information determines how global awareness is mediated among
individuals (109). The cultural turn highlights how TZM and similar movements are an
informational and ideational conflict, vis--vis historically dominating ideologies. That is, there
are ideological aspects to TZM, but for the most part, they are anti-ideology of the past. This
point, and the importance of the cultural type of social movement, is reflected in this quote
paraphrasing Melucci:
For Melucci a pre-occupation with the impact of movements upon prevailing political
systems and policies diverts attention away from their role in the production of cultural
codes which is the principle activity of the hidden networks of contemporary
movements (Chesters and Welsh 2006 , 17).

Global turn: TZMs global character is unambiguous as they are avowedly postnational, and want to see all divisive boundaries dissolved. Because of this, they direct their
energies away from politics, towards people, to induce global awareness of our common
humanity and destiny (TZM B). Their conviction that solving environmental crises depends on
global collective action is consistent with the theory and politics of globalization. In geographic
terms, TZM has over 1000 chapters worldwide with members operating in (virtually) every

25

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

country.12 Since 2009, there have been annual global Z-Day congregations organized to raise
public awareness; the recent London event attracting a sold-out crowd of 1100 guests at UCLs
Friends House (TZM E). The first Z-Day saw over 450 events across 70 countries worldwide (TZM I). Data is not available on subsequent events; however, TZM holds online archives
of videos and press coverage from events (TZM H). The official website offers translations in
31 languages. High activity through their media arm and a fourth film due late next year
(2012-3) suggests continued growth of the movement.
Complexity: TZMs self-identification with emergence and symbiosis, amplified
globally through the internet, make it unique as a mass movement and its grassroots and
deterritorialized format mirror the metaphors of social movement as rhizomatic and global
fluid. A social movement in complexity theory is about becoming and emergence through
repetition (Chesters and Welsh 2006, 121-122), which parallels Josephs emphasis on a
critical mass of consciousness through reverberation of their evolving reflexive frame, rather
than specific goals. The ironic truth about this apolitical objective is that as a global
consciousness slowly becomes reality through other processes of globalization, secularization,
and the plateaux of resistance of all alter-globalization movement organizations TZM will
hardly be able to quantify its own impact to outsiders, but it may not in fact be concerned. In
other words, with no clear goals, no clear success. Their proclaimed interests lie in appreciating
the holism of the system.
3.3.2 Planetary Action System and Ecology of Mind
TZMs structure and disposition make it part of the planetary action system, in
Meluccis term. As described above, a planetary action system is a global positive feedback
mechanism with a social awareness resistant to the undesirable effects of neoliberal

12

Their website statistics lists members in 237 territories; thus includes every official state plus many principalities
and islands.

26

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

globalization. This conceptual system as a social movement concerns addressing future


immaterial needs and demands the abandoning of habits of mind (17). A term coined by
Bateson, habits of mind13 refers to the default beliefs and ways of thinking which pose a threat
to human civilization, which are:
1. us against the environment.
2. primacy of the sub-global actors (e.g. me, my firm, my nation, etc)
(solipsism)
3. control over environment
4. perpetual belief in frontier mentality
5. economic determinism and reliance on technology (Chesters and Welsh 2006,
10).

All of the above tendencies are to be avoided (Bateson 2000 [1973/78], 468). For the
most part, TZM embraces the ecology of mind but the films express a resounding belief in
economic determinism which they call to be resolved through technology and a ResourceBased Economy. This fifth habit of mind is both its crutch and its hook at the same time.
One of the main functions of a planetary action system is to apply Batesons ecology of
mind. Batesons ecological habit of mind (a repudiation of habits of mind) is based in the
acceptance of a universal human subject interacting with both social and natural realms,
arguing that we should trust no policy decisions which emanate from persons who do not yet
have that habit (2000 [1973/78], 437, cited in Chesters and Welsh 2006, 11). TZMs complete
disillusionment with politics is the result of the dearth of such explicit sentiments in
politicking. Chesters and Welsh suggest that the complexity of Batesons Ecology of Mind
caused it to be glossed over in the social movement literature (11); a problem that is evidently
receding through the complexity turn.

13

Chesters and Welsh call this his synonym for paradigm, but perhaps could be thought analogous to the term
worldview or zeitgeist.

27

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

In defence of Batesons complexity approach and with respect to the first habit of mind
(an implicit Darwinian separation of organism and environment), he is quoted: the unit of
survival is organism plus environment. We are learning by bitter experience that the organism
which destroys its environment destroys itself (1973/78: 459) (12). This is especially fitting as
the first Zeitgeist film concludes with an almost identical quote from Carl Sagan (1980,
1:56:47): A new consciousness is developing which sees the earth as a single organism and
recognizes that an organism at war with itself is doomed. We are one planet." This succinctly
captures the affinity between TZM and complexity theories of globalization and social
movements.
There is a deeper importance to Batesons approach, reflected in his cynicism about
power in society, which links with the discussion of conspirituality. Bateson calls for a multilayered conception of communication to resist misinterpretation and counter-framing efforts,
based on
(a) scepticism of political, administrative and economic elites with immensely powerful
technologies and techniques at their disposal to recognise and optimise systemic
collective interests due to their pre-occupation with entrenched facts (e.g. the primacy
of economic growth) selected on the basis of entrenched habits of mind (Chesters and
Welsh 2006, 12).

This relates strongly to the systemic nature of conspiracy discussed and can be
paralleled with Mills concern of how the military industrial complex formed a community of
interests driven by a military metaphysic towards a permanent war economy (Taylor 2010,
18). It should be overwhelmingly clear at this point that complexity theory is the best approach
to this new social movement, and is aligned with Chesters and Welshs analysis of reflexive
framing having an essential role in the plateaux of resistance of alter-globalization, which
reflects the ecology of action implicit in planetary action systems.
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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

3.4 Utopia(-porn) and Fantasy


One of the audience members at the London Z-Day called the presentation utopiaporn, but only after joking that he was successfully brainwashed by the movie (TZM J, 9:40).
However, TZM explicitly rebuts the idea of utopia (TZM K 0:57; TZM C, 2:13:00). What this
discrepancy comes down to is what is meant by utopia; utopia as fantastic dream vs. normative
ideal. Joseph acknowledges that he doesnt know how we will get from A to B, but that is the
point of TZM; he articulates: critical mass is really what Im going for in order to (put)
pressure on the establishment (TZM J, 10:50). Understanding the complex utopian dimension
to TZM helps distinguish between its ideological and ideational features.
Hedren and Linner (2008) argue that a utopian outlook is integral to the politics of
sustainable development (210). Utopian thought can also be problematic though, as conflicting
utopias cause controversies and difficulties in implementation (218). Nevertheless it is
important to note how sustainable development is framed as a process, not as a static goal
(Ibid.), which is in line with Batesons ecology of mind. Harvey (2000) mirrors the above view
with regard to the benefits of utopian thought and possibilities for progress. Jacoby focuses on
blueprints and how they should be open ended (2005). Robinson and Tormey (2009) cite the
importance of utopian thought as its becoming, a movement as other space, as rejection of
the limits of the dominant system, and as articulation of desire in immediacy (171). A large
factor of the immobilism on the left is the resistance to utopia which is a result of the failed
experiments of the twentieth century (174).14
While the movement is not the movies, TZM wouldnt have gained the traction it has if
it was simply promoting the ideals of cosmopolitanism, secularism, and post-capitalism, as

14

Also, as Alex Jones yells into the microphone at Peter Joseph: It was talk of utopia that killed 200 million people
in the last century!!! Were gonna skip this break (referring to skipping the commercial)! YEAAAAAHHHHHH!!!
(excitedly) (Jones 2009, 43:15)

29

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

many minor movements do. Without some kind of tangible solution for people to identify with,
even if it is unrealistic, very few people would subscribe. Thus, techno-utopia is a large
component of its frame. Paradoxically, while the zeitgeist of Zeitgeist is a progressive, inclusive,
and rational philosophy, consistent with (social-)science, its popularity with the masses is
entirely dependent on it having a fantastic material component the utopia-porn of TVP and
the practical solution describe as a Resource Based Economy. This leads to the most damaging
indictment of the film, and by association, the movement itself.
In a recent BBC documentary, award-winning filmmaker Adam Curtis (2011) recounted
a brief history of the use and abuse of ecological systems-thinking, from its justification for
British Imperialism in the early 20th century (36:00), to the scientific proposals for global
resource control from the Club of Rome (41:30), to failed hippie communes (54:00), through to
the popular revolts in Central Asia (2003-2005) which were only to descend back into
authoritarian

rule

(53:00).

All

were

events

that

were

compromised

by

misunderstanding/misapplication of systems ecology. Thus, there are dangerous antecedents to


holistic systems-thought which are omitted from TZMs techno-optimist discourse.
Surprisingly, the documentary makes no reference to TZM despite the clear parallels.
Nevertheless, Curtis observation is relevant here; that in the communes and recent revolutions
alike what tore them all apart was the very thing that was supposed to have been banished:
power (Curtis, 54:30). However, I do not believe this proves systems-thinking is not the way
forward, but merely reveals its nave application via The Venus Project. Curtis polemic
overlooks academic developments as complexity and chaos theory continues to infiltrate the
social sciences. My analysis of utopia, fantasy, and systems thinking here highlights the tension
between the benefits of envisioning a global utopia and the crisis of global governance over
sustainable resource management.

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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

4. Discussion
To return to the initial question set out by Walder (2009): What is the relationship
between social structure, however conceived, and the political orientations of social
movements? (407). It seems evident that the social structure as perceived by TZM, and
objectively true to a large extent, is nationalist, religious, elitist, and corporatist. Therefore, in
rejection of these perceived anti-ecological and anti-symbiotic features, their political
orientation is effectively apolitical, conspiritual, and environmentalist. For sake of ease, Ive
constructed a chart contrasting what I delineate as its ideological and ideational qualities (Fig.
4). I hope that this distinction illustrates the difference between evangelizing and outreach.
Although TZM may exude both to varying degrees, this categorization can strengthen both
the Movement framing and the audiences ability to evaluate it. As discussed earlier, the
Resource-Based Economy is the linchpin of TZM, and is ideological.
Ideological qualities
Ideational qualities

Techno-utopian-optimism (The Venus Project); anarcho-communism


(Resource-Based Economy); conspirituality (Conspiracy theory)
Cosmopolitanism (post-nationalism); secularism (irreligiosity; religion as
corrupt); environmentalism (global commons); sustainability; social control
theory (critical-theory);

Fig. 4

Following the question-driven discussion above, I have excavated specific answers to


the initial sub-questions that I set out with:
What explains the emergence and the frame resonance of TZM? The initial frame
resonance was solely due to the artistic project of Peter Joseph, who synthesized many preexisting frames, implicating a connection between social control (religion), political conspiracy,
and financial fraud and exploitation. The secondary frame resonance, which explains TZM
itself, is reflexive and is explained by the latent desire for a techno-progressive alternative to
problems where political will is seemingly absent. In general, the mass identification with the
31

The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

common themes of conspirituality is rooted in well-warranted doubts about religious and


political structures. Moreover, consumer-citizens are losing patience with the path-dependence
and planned obsolescence by multi-national corporations who wield unduly influence over
global politics.
How does TZM fit into the new and complexity models of social movements,
and what does it mean? TZM has completed all three turns of the new political sociology and
defies reduction and explanation by conventional social movement models. TZM is a non-civil
society part of the alter-globalization movement, in accord with the theoretical discussion of
Chesters and Welsh on complexity and social movements. Moreover, TZM explicitly selfidentifies with systems-thinking, complexity theory, and superorganic models of Spaceship
Earth, which transcend the archaic notions of identity that are used against us. On the other
hand, in the efforts to mirror the apparent balance and harmony of nature, the eco-system
ideology can abused and prompt stagnation rather than positive change. What this means is
that TZM highlights the importance of systems-thinking and the need for global
consciousness, as opposed to the simplistic rhetoric and platitudes of politicians, while at the
same time it embodies a dangerous simplicity in its Resource-Based Economy that will
ultimately fail to enfranchise its members, or anyone. TZM voices a demand for reliance on the
scientific method as we know it (subject to change), but in their attempt to extricate science
from politics, they deny the dynamic of power and self-interest that actually drives the system
forward, hence the failure of the hippie communes.
What can be mutually gained from a dialogue between TZM and academia? From
the latest film, it is evident that an interaction between TZM and academia has already begun.
It is obvious where the theoretical interests overlap, as I have begun to demonstrate with
complexity theory and social movement theories. The most obvious place to start would be an

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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

open discussion of the principles of economics. TZMs critique of monetary economics stems
from a shallow interpretation of a particular school of thought, and its outright rejection of
economic science reflects its own ignorance, and that of its constituents. This dialogue would
benefit the public at large, especially with respect to the financial crisis where the confusion left
by lack of consensus has drowned out the voices of reason, and nobody seems to have a clear
account. Concerning other opportunities in the literature, deeper ethnography and participant
observation, with an emphasis on action research, would likely be very fruitful. Scholars need
to pay more attention to the underlying message of such movements, as they raise important
research questions, such as the study of systemic conspiracy.

5. Conclusion
The overarching purpose of this paper has been to investigate the nature of the
previously unstudied alter-globalization movement (The) Zeitgeist Movement, and relate it to the
complexity turn and conspirituality. Complexity theory and system dynamics models are
widely used in other fields from biology to business, yet mainstream sociology appears to be
lagging. It is evident that TZM is a new social movement that requires the new political
sociology to be understood. While the new epithet can always be challenged, no less in
science, Taylors outline is convincing in terms of the unambiguous three turns. The old
political sociology was a nation-state project of understanding itself in terms of nationalism,
religion, and political parties, the new political sociology is a global-scale endeavour that
should engage the tenuous and complex relationship between the state, religion, and
corporations, and the exploitative social structures, regimes, and relations that arise.
In my literature review, I explained Taylors new political sociology. Then, I discussed
new social movement theories and situated TZM as a global cultural movement that uses
reflexive framing to articulate its thematic message of resistance to social controls and a call for
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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

embrace of systems-thinking. I employed the metaphorical tools of complexity to show TZMs


structure and modes of resistance networked and help constitute the plateaux of resistance.
Finally, the vital notion of conspirituality sheds light on the ideological fusion of a new belief
system, while simultaneously drawing attention to the contradictions in the system which
deters examination of actual conspiracy.
In the case study, I further described TZM and matched up its principles and structural
attributes with the theories. An important dimension of TZM is the contestation of what is
called historicity, and how TZM dramaturgically frames conspiracy theory and religion to
achieve frame resonance with a mass audience. In addition to an exposition of their reflexive
framing, I showed how the notion of counter-framing exposes the bias of the mainstream media
and competing or parallel social movements. I concluded the section by showing that the
notion of utopia is one that is contested, but is generally useful for working towards a better
future.
The persistent and rational belief in the historical control, exploitation, and guidance of
masses by elite structures and habits in short, systemic conspiracy works to actively debunk
the relationship between power and illusions which are perceived to be the root cause of social
ills. Thus, TZM and the associated fields of science indirectly re-raise the fundamental question
of political sociology: Who Rules? However, TZM and the new political sociology modify it.
As one Zeitgeist intellectual puts it, in the RBE its not who makes the decisions, but how are
the decisions arrived at (TZM K, 10:30). In terms of complexity theory, power is dispersed and
decentralized throughout the system; an idea that has been articulated by Foucault and
ecologists alike. Finally, the brief discussion of the evolutionary globalization from Hegel to
Wendt creates a bridge to conspiracy theory and the movement itself. Ergo, the problematique
of the new political sociology is not who rules? but how to rule (the world)?

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The Zeitgeist Movement: Alter-globalization, Complexity, and Conspirituality

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