The Zeitgeist of This Moment

A Conversation with author Peter Joseph

Americans are very good with a to-do list. We like to say, “Okay, just tell us what to do and we can do it.” We’ve proven many times over that we have tremendous capacity for action once we know what it is we need to do.

But this is not a moment where it’s as simple as saying, “Let’s do this, and everything will be okay.” Our challenges are too complicated, too large, and too numerous to be amenable to anyone’s simple to-do list.

It’s not more data, but more understanding that we need. It’s not more power, but more wisdom that we need. It’s not more technology, but more compassion that we need.

There’s no getting out of the collective mess that we’re in, or the funk that it’s produced within us, without figuring out what brought us to this moment. Clearly our political, economic and military establishments haven’t exactly done a bang up job over the last forty years, or things would not be the way they are. Now it’s time to listen to some new ideas, from those who are speaking from a deeper level of understanding than that which makes up our transactional worldview.

In 2007, a film was released called ZEITGEIST. At the time, it was one of those crack-in-the-cosmic-egg type events that everyone was talking about, creating a kind of cultural electricity. Whether or not you agreed with everything in the film, it brought up ideas and created conversations that were important.

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ZEITGEIST was made by author and filmmaker Peter Joseph, whose ideas never fail to expand our thinking on what exactly makes things tick, and how we might change the world. I was happy to have a chance to interview Peter about how he sees things in this moment, and have him expound on ideas in his book The New Human Rights Movement: Reinventing the Economy to End Oppression.

Below is our interview. Kick back on some pillows, relax, and enjoy…

Marianne:

You know, Peter, when the Zeitgeist films came out, it was a huge moment. It sort of brought together information and feelings that so many people were having but we weren't quite naming yet. It was a profound cultural explosion when those films came out. Now, in many ways, the culture seems to have caught up with you and a large part of the conversation that you were having with the Zeitgeist films is now part of mainstream dialogue. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that we have an economic system that clearly is not working for the majority of people. So, once again, you having been in this conversation for so long, what was the first sign in your life that something was deeply askew with America's economic system and that we needed to be having a very different conversation?

Peter:

I think that would probably go back to my childhood, having grown up with my parents, civil servants, particularly my mother, working in Child Protective Services in deep rural North Carolina, which is subject, as you might imagine, into great deprivation and then great trauma and abuse, particularly in families and generations of child abuse and things of that nature. And I was in that - well, excuse me, there's a peripheral kind of a sensation there, obviously as a young kid, I'm not thinking about changing the world - but I was around that subject matter and it kind of stuck inside my craw, in the back of my subconscious as I grew older and went through the general kind of narcissism through your teenage and twenties. And then I sort of just had this kind of awakening, I suppose you could call it that, when I produced the very first Zeitgeist film, which was never supposed to be released. It was actually a performance piece that was done simply for my own amusement, so to speak - or I should say, catharsis - in my own kind of subconscious frustration, which is where I allocated. At that time, I was working in Wall Street related things and an advertising agency, two of, as far as I'm concerned, the most useless institutions on the face of the earth.

So I attribute a lot of my social activism and drive to my mother's work because as I reflected on what she did for a living for twenty, thirty years I realized just how important the economy actually was. You really can't stop the generations of child abuse and then the neurotic problems that happen with people as they age unless you stop the vast inequality that - as far as I'm concerned and we can get into - is built into the structure of capitalism, if you want to call it that, though I think we could use other words for it and again, we can expand upon that. So inequality and deprivation and poverty all intermix to create a very, very toxic environment and I think that - to shortly answer the question - is sort of where it all began.

Marianne:

When you say that you weren't even planning on releasing the film, it was just a performance art piece of your own, you must have been so blown away when this moment came when it’s all any of us could talk about. That must have been really mind blowing for you, yes?

Peter:

Well yeah, a kind of strange serendipity. I never intended to pursue any kind of social work in my life. Again, it kind of happened and I realized that there was an audience for this kind of subject matter and this kind of thinking, and it kind of took on a life of its own. I feel like I've been pushed in what I've been doing. I don't sit around and think about what my next step is, I just kind of listen to my environment and over the past ten years, I've just sort of been guided, for better or for worse.

I have to admit, it could be very stressful. You know, you're getting thousands of emails and people that are trying to figure out what to do for the future and obviously, we are in a deeply critical period in terms of environmental sustainability and social sustainability by extension. The exponential increase in socioeconomic inequality in concert with the ecological decline is one of the most unprecedented problems we face in synergy of the entire human species.

We’ve never, in the history of our adaptations, experienced a decline in our access to resources, in the sense of loss of biodiversity, resource overshoot. This is the first in the history of our entire species and we don't know what to do. And back to my core kind of thesis at this point, as an activism - as an activist, excuse me - until we have system level change, until we see the economy change, we're not going to be able to rectify the vast majority of the problems that keep mounting.

Marianne:

So you began to realize that it wasn't just a matter of a person having economic difficulties over here and a person having economic difficulties over there. You began to realize it was a systemic problem built into the economics that we were practicing as a society. You realized that millions of people were trapped within this system and you basically foresaw some of the more devastating results of the decline that would occur because this has been going on for so many decades. One of the things that you said just now is that you think there could be a better word for it than “capitalism” and I'm curious about your saying that because I do think there's a simplistic conversation going on and we need to go much deeper and far more nuanced. 

Some people say we just got to end capitalism. Well, it's not quite that simple. 

So I'd love for you to lay out for us, first of all, your issues with that particular word. What is the actual problem? Is radical transformation possible and, much along the line of what you were just saying, is it possible in time?

Peter:

Okay, so the issue of the term “capitalism” is - there's fundamentally two problems, one of - it's rooted in language, hence the semantic problem, because you'll find if you walk down the street and ask everybody what capitalism is, you're going to get many different definitions.

I'd like to tell a little story about that cause it helps frame the way to think about this. Twelve thousand years ago, we evolved from hunter-gatherer societies that had no agricultural ability. They lived in complete harmony with nature because they could not affect nature. Upon the Neolithic Revolution, the Anthropocene era, this is when we, you know, past twelve thousand years, where we are able to actually affect the planet. We are - we could put our hands in the soil. We started to develop technology. It seemed very great at the beginning and a lot of anthropologists will actually admit that it was probably the greatest mistake we ever made, even though that's very hard for us to think about, in the primitive association we have to those early indigenous cultures, but actually - I would actually argue, as an aside - they were far more advanced because they didn't have the ability to destroy themselves as we've created now.

But, so twelve thousand years ago, the Neolithic Revolution happened. We discover agriculture and suddenly everything changes, suddenly you have settled societies. Suddenly you have pockets of societies in a very unbalanced world. Some societies are near water, some are near desert regions. So you're trying to navigate now civilization from a position of imbalance inherently because of the settled nature. And what does that create? It creates an incentive to start to trade specialization of labor. Someone grows some corn, I'm going to make some shoes. Suddenly there's an incentive and a natural propensity to start trading. So you trade with each other, everyone utilized their specialized ability. Suddenly communities start to trade with each other and these networks of markets build out and they've gone through many different permutations.

You know, you can talk about feudalism and the differences between, say, capitalism, socialism, feudalism, mercantilism and all those isms. Underneath all of those is still the fundamental premise of specialized labor and trade, which has inside of it certain implications. You have to have property. You have to have a competitive dynamic. You have to have an exploitative dynamic and I don't mean that necessarily in a cruel sense, where you're hitting slaves with whips. The entire premise of market behavior is based upon some form of advantage through exploitation. It's one of the most fundamental principles that seems to be misunderstood because it's not about a value system, it's just what you do. If I'm going to hire someone to work for me and I'm on a serious budget, I am not going to hire the person that I have to pay the most money to if I can find someone equivalent that has some degree of deficiency and I can pay them less. We hate to admit that, but that is the fundamental gaming mentality of the system we've created. So property, dominance, exploitation, competition.

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This is what I call in my book the root socioeconomic orientation of our society, which was born out of the Neolithic Revolution and has carried forward with us to this day. That is the framework and structure of capitalism, in concert with the more formal mechanisms inside of it - and I'm going to conclude with this, so I won't keep rambling here. You have to have in this society, structurally speaking, what's called cyclical consumption, and the more the better. The system has certain properties that are unviolatable, and if they were, it would change the system entirely. You wouldn't have what we call so-called “capitalism” if any of these properties were changed. Cyclical consumption means that in order to keep labor going, you have to have demand. In order to create demand, you have to have people getting money, which means they have to have labor, which means they have to have demand. So between producers and laborers and consumers, which were all kind of this - you know, this unified, in that way - but if you divide them into categories, everything has to constantly move and the faster the better.

We talk about economic growth in this society, it's not a contrivance, it's built directly into the structure of this system and it's infinitely propelled, meaning that it's explicitly unsustainable. There's any singular thing that I'll say about our economy - call it “capitalism,” call it “market dynamics,” whatever - it's that it is foundationally premised in an infinite growth paradigm and you can't have that on a finite planet. It is literally impossible. It's what, in system science, you call it a positive reinforcing feedback loop and a positive reinforcing feedback loop always self-destructs. And after the - since the twelve thousand years, since the rise of technology, since population growth  - and population growth isn't inexplicitly the problem, mind you. I'm not saying that we have to decrease population, that's actually the lowest of our priorities. It's the structural incentive that's the problem.

We've come to this point of high technology and we are right on the edge of complete catastrophe through ecological decline, socioeconomic inequality and the development of destructive technology that we have no wisdom to control. You know, now the nuclear weapon was bad enough, wait until artificial intelligence enters into the military establishment and all of the other nanotechnology and extremely complex science that we've developed that we are not smart enough to understand and control. It's the wrong direction in terms of our wisdom because of all of this negativity, specifically the competitive nature of the planet as it is. So I'll stop right there. I hope that clarifies.

Marianne:

I think what’s key to what went wrong and very key to what we need in order to make things right, and that is human ethics.

Adam Smith himself said there cannot be a free market system outside an ethical context.  He said you can only do this in the context of human ethics and even - even Milton Friedman said we're going to need a UBI for this to work. 

Otherwise it would be a cruel system. So the fact that some people took the free market ethos and the free market system and applied it in very selfish, exploitative ways, there are others who would argue that if human ethics and reverence for the planet and reverence for each other were a central factor in all this, and if - and if not only business was dominated by that kind of consciousness, but also regulations were dominated by that kind of consciousness, then we would have a different situation here. You just said that capitalism was inherently exploitative, I think there is such a thing as conscious capitalism. I think there is such a thing as my, as an employer saying, I'm going to pay you more because I don't know how you’ll live on that, you know? I don't think that the free market economy, I mean, in the hands of ethical people who are living their values that are beyond economic, then perhaps something could be different.

When you were talking about infinite growth taking us to where we are, part of the problem is that we define infinite growth in terms of external growth. There are other kinds of infinite growth: The growth of wisdom, the growth of human creativity, greater art, greater literature, greater depths of education but given your bottom line, and I do agree on the bottom line, which is that we're in for an apocalyptic, dystopian future closer than we even think if we don't get on top of this right now - what would you have us do?

Peter:

I think, in principle, in philosophical, moral, ethical principle, as, you know, the core of Axial Age religions and the concept of morality puts forward in terms of trying to do unto others and all of that positivity, we've had a deep moral foundation that has been preached to us for literally thousands of years. And I guess the question first is, why hasn't that taken more root than it has already? And I first - excuse me - I simultaneously agree, in principle, broadly that if people did have an ethical sensibility in the deepest sense and were able to fight against the natural tendencies of the market system and the natural incentives of capitalism, yes, you could have a society that did not base itself - excuse me, did not contribute to - all of this imbalance and suffering and, you know, brutality and exploitation through competition, dominance and so forth.

That is a theory that I think is best proven by the heroes of our society historically, such as the Martin Luther Kings, the Gandhis, Malcolm Xs, and all of the civil rights and human rights leaders that have been out there that have preached to one degree or another, the fact that we have to rise up against these forces. But that is not, unfortunately, where the average person rests in their spiritual, moral and ethical discovery. That isn't convenient in the psychology of people, because unfortunately, the mental models that are forged by the incentives of our system are fundamentally based on a dominance, competitive and exploitative ethic. So what you're battling against is a structure that you're trying to be morally, you know, appropriate against. It doesn't reinforce the moral - the moral drive that's required, I think, to create the kind of sustainable consciousness that's, that’s out  - it fights us.

I think there's a - there's a necessity to have a certain humbleness with respect to the vulnerability we have as human beings in our cultural evolution and to not see ourselves as so explicitly independent in this free will orientation. There's actually a great deal of argument to support the fact that we are so vulnerable to our conditions, to our upbringing, obviously, the culture that defines us. You know, we ask ourself the question, “How much of you is you?” Because if you really think about one's history or your own history, we all derive our sense of identity from some type of linkage to something else in the external: Who we think we are, all of our identifications, our value systems, our religious beliefs. All of that comes from a cultural place on some level.

So I argue a very complicated argument and that if we humble ourselves and realize we are throughputs, realize we are vulnerable, realize that we can't necessarily outthink in terms of what's reinforced in the system, I think it's a very big stretch to assume that we're going to have a spiritual awakening inside of a completely toxic system and unless that spiritual awakening allows us to change that system, to stop all the negative reinforcements that continue to pollute the average individual. Now to say one more thing, most people think they're moral. Most people think they're ethical, but yet they still game - and I use that word literally - we are gaming in this system. The whole system is based on a zero sum game and we are game against each other for the sake of advantage, for the sake of literally trying to get more, for the sake of our future, at the expense of others one way or another. It's so slanted in that way and provenly so. And I mean, you see my point, I find it challenging and now, I don't disagree that we have to have this kind of awakening to change the system and that's exactly what I promote. That's why, you know, you need to be shaming billionaires.

You need to create a new sense of connection between people, a spiritual connection that says we have to create equality, we have to create equity. We have to find a way to do this, to create balance, not just because it's the right thing to do from a moral standpoint, because if we don't, it doesn't work. The fourth major principle of sustainability that we've come to realize is equity. The more imbalance we create in this society - and I am not even referring to the ecological crisis, which will just reinforce the lack of equity. The imbalances that we've created psychologically are so catastrophic that they've led to long term destabilizations that would be very, very difficult to fix the longer they go on, such as, say, the phenomenon of American mass shootings, why is that specific to America? What is it about America that has created this bizarre, almost daily action of far more people dying in a mass shooting? That these are complicated subjects that I think root down to the social architecture and we have to be vulnerable to that, as opposed to saying, “Oh, we can just outthink it. We just need more moral and ethical values.” It all interplays though, Marianne, I'm not contradicting what you're saying, I think there’s more to it and I think we have to have better system reinforcers to bring out the best of humanity, as opposed to what it's doing now, which I really believe is bringing out the worst of humanity.

Marianne:

But I think most people deep in their hearts would like to be ethical. And there is such a thing as leadership.

And the lack of ethical leadership has been a primary factor in taking us to where we are. If business leadership is not ethical, if political leadership is not ethical, if the issue of ethics and human character is not included in the way we educate our children at school, in the way that we raise our children, then literally all hell breaks loose because there's such an emotional and psychological chaos.

There's a sense then that we don't owe anything to one another. The sense that we - that we are not our brother's keeper and therefore we become then ideologic - we become vulnerable to ideological capture by genuinely even psychotic forces, soulless forces, market forces that have no sense of human responsibility to other human beings or to animals or to the planet on which we live. But if you watch small children, we are born with a sense of yearning for one another and for fair play.

I have seen this over and over and over again. This has to do with how people are taught. This is why I feel so strongly about funding ending resources into the - into the direction of children, particularly small children. We need to build human compassion into the synapses of our brain development. Eighty percent of the brain develops before the age of five. And I believe that it's not just that we need to build in those synapses of compassion, I believe we need to foster those synapses of compassion that actually are there in the brain upon birth.

People are trained to hate. People are trained into the ways of exploitation. And then it is completely fostered. It is fostered by our educational system. It is fostered by so - by so many of our human relationships and human dynamics. It's not as simple as saying we need a spiritual awakening, but it is a recognition that the ethical element deserves a lot more than a “Oh yeah. But then there's that.”

It is as important a force as the market. It is as important a force as - as the state. And when it is lacking, then what is withdrawn from the human being is any kind of human responsibility or reverence or or love for each other, for the planet, at which point we are at the beginning where we already are, of a massive decline that could lead to the extinction of the species. I think you and I would agree on that.

Peter:

I absolutely would and I would agree with everything you've just said. People are very reductionist in their world views because we don't have a holistic sense of reality, because that's not the way we think in terms of the way we organize society. You know, university is a series of separate departments. It's not a unified whole, which it should be. And same goes for the way our economy is organized simultaneously. What I'll say in terms of the relativity of that, think about - I'll give one example - think about, as I've talked about just a moment ago, our society is powered by growth and consumption. Now, that's not a subjective decision. That's simply what the system is.

So that is the structure. And this is what I'm trying to get at, in terms of the problems inherent. Doesn't mean that everything isn't salvageable in the world that we see, in terms - as far as economics. It means that there are certain structural flaws. So if you have a system like that where the more you push the gas pedal down on the car, the faster the economy goes, which means the more people consume and buy and consume and throw away, oh great, there's more jobs. You know, you hear it on the news. “Oh, GDP's rising.” Look at what happened with Covid. You know, a thirty percent drop in GDP. What did everyone do? They just try to pump more money into the system to get GDP going again, meaning get more demand for jobs and so the machine continues on its trajectory off the cliff.

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Think about resource exploitation. Now we use the word exploitation in terms of, you know, human disregard. And again, that's kind of a vague definition because - and I'm not saying you meant it that way, but exploitation really is built into the system. And that's why a dead tree is more valuable than a living tree from the standpoint of the structure of the system. So you look at the enormous destructive - I mean, every life support system is currently in decline. You have elements of rainforest that are now producing more CO2 because of how disturbed the ecosystems have become. Obviously, all the topsoil, water pollution, that goes on and on. We've all heard this stuff in major lists. Why? Is it because we don't care? Are we really got dumb that we can't see that our habitat supports us?

No, it's this myopic compartmentalization of behavior that has to do with the need to keep cyclical consumption and economic growth going and it doesn't matter what the outcome is. Well, it matters when it's too late, because that's precisely what we're seeing. The only kind of a major dramatic shift in our economic and social behavior will likely happen as it has historically, through crises, when it's really too late because that's when the -

That's like the ultimate what you call a balancing feedback loop, it's when the problems have become so severe that we can't even continue the distorted practices that we've put forward. 

Marianne:

And that's how I - that’s what I fear in the Biden administration, even where there are some good directions, it's too little, too slow, too late. That anything that we're doing that would make things better is on a level of - it doesn't even begin to have the kind of urgency that is necessary. And as you would say - and I would totally agree with you - doesn't challenge the underlying assumptions of an economic order that is bound to take us back to the same problem that we had to begin with. So now I want to get back, you said a couple of minutes ago that it's not that it's not salvageable. First of all, do you think basically the survival of the human race, the trajectory moving forward, a sustainable trajectory? Do you think that that trajectory is salvageable? 

What do you think needs to be done and how do you think we can do it?

Peter:

Okay. Well, when I say “salvageable,” I mean in terms of a systems view of what's happening, going not - not in the structure of capitalism as is defined by, you know, classical economists, but in terms of what the system is, which is a system of labor specialization - which is important - you know, we have to have people specialize in certain fields to some degree, we become part of a systemic unit network to get things done and create a good standard of living. And it takes a community to do that.

That is what the network of markets has achieved, at least in the abstract of it, but there are other ways to do it. So you take that basic component of our community driven efforts to improve life and keep things going and then you start to break it down and realize what are the problematic attributes within what we've created? Markets. And this is the elephant in the living room.

Markets in the individual act of trade have built into them all of those negative structural attributes that I spoke of a moment ago in terms of unsustainability, both culturally and ecologically. We have to - as radical as this is - start to move away from the fundamental premise of market trade. I'm not saying it ceases to exist on all levels because there are good arguments where on certain tiers it could. But we start to go a direction that, really, John Maynard Keynes in the mid 20th century started to talk about when we had the increase of efficiency during the Industrial Revolution. He was - he had great foresight and great naivete cause he didn't understand the structural propensity to keep the system going regardless of how much efficiency we have.

So let me clarify that. The idea was simple. You increase efficiency. People realize a sustainable standard of living based on scientific principles. You start to reduce the work week. You increase wages, you lower costs, all in direct proportion to itself based on the kind of technological - which is true - economic efficiency and then suddenly you wake up one day and families have a unified form. No one’s struggling to survive. No one's in debt. They have everything they need. They work a little bit a week and suddenly balance emerges. Beautiful. 

Marianne:

Wow.

Peter:

That's not what the structure wants to do. The structure that we have is kind of like a sick demon. It's like an organism in and of itself. It has its own consciousness. And the moment anything -  it's based upon fundamental deprivation. It's about, oh you -

Marianne:

It’s sociopathic.

Peter:

It is.

Marianne:

It’s soulless. There’s no compassion, it’s sociopathic - but hold on.

Peter:

Yeah.

Marianne:

I don't - I don’t want to hear any more about how bad it is. 

Peter:

(Laughs)

Marianne:

We agree about how bad it is, we agree about its flaws. What I'm fascinated by are these ideas of what to do about it now. So let's - but let’s talk about this idea that you were just talking about if people had more time, if people had more money, if people were relaxed, if balance - a situation would actually be conducive to a recalibration on the part of the universe and bringing harmony back in the system. Can you talk to me about what policies do you think help could achieve this? So I'm going to name a few and you tell me. UBI?

Peter:

Yes, in an incremental way.

Marianne:

Okay, what do you mean by that? Of UBI in an incremental way?

Peter:

So UBI is really a way of compensating for the efficiency increases that are displacing labor, that was the fundamental premise of Andrew Yang's political ambitions and it's been talked about for a long, long time. It's a way, instead of doing what John Maynard Keynes just suggested, that I just brought up where you actually strategically demarketize, where people can live their lives without having to pay for everything because you can - we have the ability to generate abundance even in the throes of the scarcity we're faced against. It's such a contrivance, what we've done problem wise. We still have the ability to create an equitable abundance on this planet for everyone.

Marianne:

Buckminster Fuller.

Peter:

Yes. And yeah. So, UBI is a way of actually preserving the market system's fundamental negative intent by not -

Marianne:

Just trying to compensate for it. 

Peter:

Yeah. And just pumping more money into the system. 

I want to see alleviation of poverty. I want to see the socioeconomic tensions subside and I think UBI would have a deep sociological and psychological effect. So that's what I mean by incremental, but I don't think it's a solution to anything.

Marianne:

Okay, Medicare for All?

Peter:

Of course, of course. I think, unfortunately though, Medicare for All - we, you know, we sit in this country and we wonder why we can't do what the other other European countries have done. And it's interesting from a system science standpoint over the course of history to ask yourself what has happened in American culture and the American power system? It has to do with a lot of interfering factors that go back to colonialism and the evolution of this country and the deep entrenchment it has in the free market philosophy which evolved in the neoliberal philosophy. And what you have is a global circumstance where the United States - not only its political leadership, but in many ways much of the population, I'm not saying the majority - have been brainwashed into thinking that any kind of “socialist” anything - and that's not even the correct context but that's the way people refer to it as - is somehow a failure of individual drive or we haven't pulled up our bootstraps well enough and, “Oh, we can't do that. We're going to be in gulags if we have Medicare for All.” Unfortunately - 

Marianne:

Rugged individualism.

Peter:

Yes, exactly. And I bring that up in terms of the global context because, you know, Sanders, he's like, very simple. It's almost boring. You want to impose the same fundamental things that we see in other countries that work. Why don't they work here? It's because there's a completely different neurotic culture and power establishment. It’s a - it's a different angle of what has happened over the course of the past hundred years, especially after World War II. And I actually believe, Marianne, that you're going to have a really hard time ever getting the corporate funded government, the Congress, which is so in the back pockets of corporate America, the pharmaceutical industry, the massive medical industrial complex, to finally consent to Medicare for All unless it serves their independent interests with the subsidies or whatever financial - you know, kind of like the Obamacare thing. The insurance companies made out like a bandit because of what they had, how they finagled that to make it work out. So anyway, Medicare for All? Obviously. Great. 

Marianne:

What you were just referring to, of course, is that health insurance companies won't allow it, big pharmaceutical companies won't allow it and they have almost as much of a donor base inside the Democratic Party as inside the Republican Party. So then, just asking you on a very crass political level, do you therefore see people who are standing for more progressive values, the correction and radical transformation of capitalism so that it is no longer such a - really such a negative force on our planet as it has become - it's been weaponized against people for the sake of a very few people. Would you work to build up the progressive element of the Democratic Party that the Democratic establishment elite is seeking to suppress? Or would you, as a person interested in politics, go more in the direction of a third party?

Peter:

That's a very good question. The problem with a third party is the duopoly of the left and right has become so powerful, third party ambitions tend to be squandered. That's by force of the - again, where the money goes in the system. I would actually probably say you, if you're going to use that angle, you go with the dominant institutions and you try to - you try to hijack them, ultimately, ideally through progressives that come in to, say, the Democratic Party, but I have to admit - off, just broadly speaking, that I stand back from this as a kind of system science, in my system science lens - when you look at the Republicans and Democrats - and this isn't speaking of you, of course, it's speaking of the general establishment, as existed, because you are an outlier and thankfully so - you really have only a conservative party. There's not a progressive party or a progressive element really within the Democratic establishment. It's - they all support the fundamental foundation of our system.

And that is, unfortunately, as I said before, a structural reality. It is a social psychology built upon the dark incentives - the unfortunate incentives - of what market capitalism has done to our culture and how it functions. So I step way back and I say we need a completely different approach. Not, now we don't - excuse me - we don't sideline political interests and activism. I completely commend what you're doing to bring good people to the forefront and I commend all those that have given their attempts but there is such capture of the - of the government by business and necessarily so, meaning it's - the government of our society is literally an outcome of the economic structure.

That's why it's even formulated that way, in hierarchy. That's why we have a president. That's why lobbying is legal. That's why the business infrastructure, which makes everything work, is entrenched. I mean, if you think about it, it's inconsistent for government to not be utterly influenced by business interests because money buys everything and we think we're going to draw a line at politicians and political policy. We all know that lobbyists write so many of the laws because they're - that's just what the system has become and we look the other way, we say, “Well, that's corruption. That's - that’s not the way it's supposed to be. We can fix that if we get better people in there.” And then year after year, the same kind of patterns.

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Marianne:

No, I don't think people think that at all. People realize that it was the Supreme Court in the 1970s. Those decisions, beginning with the declaration on their part, that money is free speech, climaxing with the Citizens United decision that gave complete unlimited power to corporations to unduly influence our elections. Listen, it was a Supreme Court justice, the late Louis Brandeis, who said, “You can either have large amounts of money concentrated in the hands of a very few or you can have democracy. You cannot have both.” So this all has to do with who's on your Supreme Court. I mean, this - you say it was built into the system but it's built into a particular consciousness about how the system should operate and if members of the Supreme Court had been different, if some of the decisions on the part of the Supreme Court had been different… When you look at something like the New Deal, you look at something like the financial regulations that were instituted during that time, he pushed back against what he called the economic royalists. So the history of the United States has not been one long hegemonic story of capitalist horror. It has been a continuing trend towards hegemonic capitalist horror, met at various times by extraordinary pushback. Extraordinary pushback such as unions, extraordinary pushback such as child labor laws, extraordinary pushback such as the New Deal. Extraordinary pushback such as the civil rights movement, extraordinary pushback such as the women's rights movement. So I think that you paint a picture that does not allow for human agency and the ability of human agency to push back against the monster. 

I mean, this is a spiritual contest. This really is the forces of freedom against this soulless, demonic force, a force that you describe so well. 

It's interesting. We sit perched. You know, I think you and I would agree it's either going to get really, really, really, really bad or there's going to be a miracle, basically, and there's going to be some kind of fundamental breakthrough that I just feel, if you look at American history, we've had some of those.

Peter:

To a degree.

Marianne:

And I think we could have one now.

Peter:

I completely agree with you. 

However, if you look at all of the major pushbacks, as you put it, which first of all, think about your language, the pushback, it implies that there is a current that we're trying to move against. I often use the analogy of the river. 

Yes. And that current, unfortunately, is going to continue its force regardless of how we push back to some degree,

Marianne:

Until we are an enlightened species, that will be true, 

Peter:

Okay. And I would counter that - and I agree with you, by the way. I would counter that, you know, in specifics to say until we have a system that reinforces the better sides of our nature, that reinforces our better angels, this system doesn't do that. The river is flowing the direction that we are moving against and all the movements, all the civil rights movements, all the seeming revolutions, all of them are being eroded slowly over time by that river, even though they have held their place for some time.

FDR has been under attack for so long and his policies, they've been trying to remove all of those  social safety nets. And that tells you something about the fundamental path and ethic of the dominant culture in the system, which I argue is not necessarily the pollution of the mind, per se, individually, in the sense of a kind of awakening that's required and it's all about the individual mind. I agree that's part of it. But until we have the reinforcing social system that actually promotes human rights, where it's built into the way we think, as opposed to exploitation, dominance and competition, I think we're in a lot of trouble.

Marianne:

What are you thinking would be that system?

Peter:

So you, again, going back to the principles of sustainability and public health and through that lens, I throw out all the isms. It doesn't matter. You look at what's going to work from the most principled standpoint based on the knowledge we have today in terms of understanding human behavior and understanding what's required to live on the planet. And even more interesting - interestingly, in that, because you have a lot of people out there and I'm sure you've heard it, “Oh, it's just human nature to be competitive. Oh, it's just human nature to want more and be greedy” and all that false, you know, silly mythology that stands to - to hold up the system is really what it is, it's propaganda to try and preserve the establishment and the structure that's behind it.

Instead, what you find is that - excuse me - the fundamental principles’ epidemiology rest on the ecological crisis. We have to be sustainable on the planet which precedes everything. It doesn't matter what our human nature is. I don't believe evolution has designed us to self-destruct. In evolution or whatever - whatever organization of nature that has put us on this planet and made us set in motion, we are not designed - like any other species - to self-destruct. We're generating this behavior, meaning that what we think we are, what we think we're doing is irrelevant to what we need to do based on principles of science to become sustainable. If we do not have a steady state economy, if we do not have an economy based on equilibrium and remove the growth element that's built into the structure, then it doesn't matter what else we do otherwise because we're going to continue the negative ecological trajectory. So let's start it from right there.

How do we create a steady state economy? Is capitalism, as we call it, capable of doing that? Not by any principles I can see. So that's one kernel seed - steady state. Then you look at the principles of public health. We need equity. We need equality. Ninety-nine percent of human history, we were in hunter-gatherer societies in egalitarian, nonhierarchical structures. The - we are an anomalous period, in fact, in human society. It's a complete anomaly that we have the economy we do and that we're behaving in the hierarchical power dominated, unsustainable methods that we are.

It really is, I mean, people think that this is just the way it is and humans have always been this way. No. You go to indigenous cultures, completely different ethics, very nonhierarchical once again, all of the traditional forms that we see that are codified in our current world that people think is human nature completely destroyed by the indigenous cultures, hunter-gatherer cultures specifically that were studied in the 20th century by people like Margaret Mead and many, many other anthropologists. Equity is what you find in those societies. They don't have wars. You - see, look at the Mennonites and the Amish and all of these other kind of derivatives of deep, orthodox religion. They don't even have violence - they haven't had murders in like, centuries. So you need equity as the fundamental foundation and you can't have a society that's based upon division hierarchy as this structure unfortunately creates.

So I'll stop right there just so we can continue. You need ecological balance, steady state, you need equity. And how do we get a system to do that? And it's bigger than just wanting to be more ethical about it. The structure moves against both of those forces.

Marianne:

We are going to either have a neofascist dystopian era lying in front of us or we're going to have such a moral and ethical awakening combined with such a democratic - a real pro-democracy movement in this country. It seems to me those are the only two choices. We can't continue the way we are. It is unsustainable.

Peter:

Right. Just to comment on your anticipation of the future, I just want to reiterate a little bit on just - or expand upon one structural phenomenon in terms of, you know, how we think about business. Business is a dictatorship. Business, in its formal construct as it's practiced across the world, is a fascist institution. It has nothing to do with democracy and so why would we expect our governments to not employ the same kind of top down? I mean, look at Donald Trump. Donald Trump is the archetype. He is almost a child of the socioeconomic order that we have.

Marianne:

He is. He was subconsciously - once we started making the businessmen God - once that happened, then it was almost inevitable that this gross perversion of what a businessman is would become this dictator type character that you were mentioning.

But when I was growing up, Peter, the difference between now and when I was growing up was that there was a sense when I was young that the government was more powerful than the CEOs. Today it's become inverted and it's so clear that the CEOs dictate to the government. And that's why once again, until we get our democracy back, until we - that's where that - that emergence, the revolution, the resurrection has got to come from a sense that - that people, you know, I do still agree with Thomas Jefferson that the only safe repository for power in the United States is in the hands of the people.

I want to thank you for being one of the Great Awakeners. I've learned so much from you, so many people have learned so much from you, Peter and -

Peter:

Thank you. Likewise. 

Marianne:

Thank you. Anything else specific that you want to add before we close? You've been very generous with your time.

Peter:

Well, it's an enormous conversation. Going back, just briefly, to your question about what to do.

There is a transition plan. As I said before, it moves away from markets as far as possible because my fundamental thesis - and I really believe it, we can talk more about this another time - it doesn't override any of the other attempts, like we have to have ethical, positive, you know, political leadership and general leadership, where political or not, we need forefront people to change the cultural dynamic, to start to move away from the sickness that this society and ultimately its structure - its underlying economic structure - is creating.

And I think there's a process to do that, which has to do with slowly de-marketizing. And if anyone wants to check that out, they can read my book The New Human Rights Movement towards the end.

Marianne:

The plan is fascinating. The time element is what's so scary to me because this is a conversation we should have been having forty years ago. 

And as you said, you know, this is not something that can happen quickly. 

On the other hand, as A Course in Miracles says, “miracles collapse time.”  The deeper - the more deeply we understand an issue, the more quickly we can make the change. 

Peter:

Absolutely.

Marianne:

I am grateful that you were here and I hope that this is one of many conversations that we'll be having pretty much for the rest of our lives.

Peter:

Yeah. (Laughs) Thank you. Appreciate it, Marianne. Take care.

Marianne:

Much love.

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