Mosaic
The Missing Music

Collective Enterprise

Further to recent rumblings on the subject, Ilya Somin ponders Star Trek and socialism: 

Star Trek is a cultural icon watched by tens of millions. Many more people will derive their vision of what the future should be at least partially from Star Trek than from reading serious scholarship. Law professor Benjamin Barton wrote that “no book released in 2005 will have more influence on what kids and adults around the world think about government than The Half-Blood Prince [of the hugely popular Harry Potter series].” Similarly, no nonfiction book of the last few decades is likely to have more influence on how people see the future than Star Trek. If Star Trek continues to portray a socialist future as basically unproblematic, and even implies that a transition to full-blown socialism can be achieved without any major trauma, that is a point worth noting.

With rare exceptions, the Star Trek franchise has been far too blasé in its portrayal of future socialism and its implications. After all, socialist regimes have been responsible for the death and impoverishment of millions. There has never been a society that combined full-blown socialism with prosperity or extensive “noneconomic” liberties for the population. And there has never been a transition to socialism without large-scale repression and mass murder. If Star Trek’s writers want to posit a new form of socialism that somehow avoids the shortcomings of all previous ones, they should at least give us some sense of how this new and improved socialism escaped the usual pitfalls. Had a similarly prominent pop culture icon been equally obtuse in its portrayal of fascism or even milder forms of right-wing oppression (e.g. - by portraying a rightist military dictatorship that seems to work well and benefits the people greatly without any noticeable loss of personal freedom), it would have been universally pilloried.

The whole thing.

Comments

sk60

You can get 200-page technical manuals explaining how the ships work etc but no-one bothered explaining how anything is paid for.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Star_Trek_Technical_Manuals

georges

In Star Trek, pretty much every character works for the military or the government. Everyone's either in Star Fleet or they're an ambassador or something. We never see the civilian economy or how it's structured. So I don't think it's actively demonstrating a particular way of structuring the civilian economy.

If you watch Master And Commander we only see members of the British military fighting members of the Romulon/French military. Isn't it the same?

The Alien series and Blade Runner both present worlds in which corporations are powerful, ubiquitous and not benign.

David

sk60,

I suppose detailed expositions of imaginary technology are more entertaining than expositions of imaginary socio-economics, at least to the target audience. That said, someone bothered to invent an entire imaginary Klingon language, so in 40-odd years of TV series, films, books, etc, you’d think *someone* would’ve addressed the subject in a vaguely meaningful way.

David

Georges,

“We never see the civilian economy or how it’s structured.”

Well, we’re told by various key characters that “money doesn’t exist” on Earth in the 24th century (and presumably throughout other parts of the Federation). And Picard’s crew in particular has repeatedly sneered at base commerce, often pointedly so. (Ferengi as evil capitalist trolls, anyone?) And as I pointed out earlier, we see Sisko’s father running a restaurant on Earth that has “customers” who, having no money, presumably don’t pay for what they eat or the service they receive. So you’d think this post-capitalist arrangement - which is often alluded to as a magnificent achievement and the end of human misery - would be deserving of some explanation. At least something comparable with the rather sketchy “physics” of, say, warp drive or transporters.

sk60

And doesn't Picard's family have a vineyard in TNG? But if there's no money how can they work as private businesses? Maybe it's a workers collective.

TBA

An interesting thing about Star Trek is that it's so elitist. You only get to see the officers of the Star Fleet; never how the privates live, or, indeed, what they do. (I count Scottie as a higher-up since he's the boss of his sector.) Sure, there are characters, often minor, who are civilians, outside the chain of command, but they only hobnob with the brass; the grunts are strictly extras.

Mark

"And doesn't Picard's family have a vineyard in TNG? But if there's no money how can they work as private businesses? Maybe it's a workers collective."

Sisko's son & Picard talk at length about how humanity now works to better itself (and so on). It's confusing though, because other sources indicate that the Federation has a currency, but it obviously isn't used much (reliability issues?). There's a lot more of it here though: http://www.stardestroyer.net/Empire/Essays/Trek-Marxism.html

Anyway, I'm sticking to "Doc" Smith's Lensman universe for my ideal form of government.

TDK

"An interesting thing about Star Trek is that it's so elitist. You only get to see the officers of the Star Fleet"

That's not true. You often get to see junior members of the crew. Usually they are introduced in a transporter room scene; invariably they hold a one way ticket.

TDK

Actually you do get to see some of the Star Trek society, although it's clearly limited by TV budgets. Often the episodes are set on some world which invariably survives on either (subsistence?) farming or mining. I don't recall any industry except that in one of the movies they are assembling the Enterprise.

Trek leaves a lot unsaid because that works better. Audiences project what they want onto such a series. Therefore the more that is pinned down, the more audience members will react badly. These threads are an example - the "socialist" snippets irritate the commentators partly because they are unnecessary and partly because they aren't explored in any depth that would make them interesting plots. Far better to leave space where the audience can imagine their own backdrop.

David

TDK,

“Therefore the more that is pinned down, the more audience members will react badly. These threads are an example…”

I think that’s true, dramatically. Certainly, there’s more to start picking at until it comes unravelled. But after 11 films, 5 TV series and umpteen books – and given the importance of the “no money” premise to the general concept (at least in later iterations) - some explanation seems in order. And given the persistently mysterious nature of the utopia, suspicions will be aroused. If, as we’re told repeatedly, “humans are no longer motivated by profit” (or “greed”), it isn’t at all clear how restaurants or vineyards could function as private concerns. Is Sisko Senior really managing an upscale government food kitchen? Is it a hobby to pass the time? If these things are private businesses, what’s the method of transaction? Bartering? Promises of reciprocation? Marriage offers? I think we should be told. There could be a *gripping* spin-off here.

“Audiences project what they want onto such a series... Far better to leave space where the audience can imagine their own backdrop.”

Well, this touches on Somin’s point, quoted above. In its various incarnations, Star Trek is a major influence on how many people imagine the future could (or should) be. Given the grim history of similar dreams, some clarification wouldn’t be entirely out of line. Lest people get the wrong idea.

tehag

The economies of Star Trek exist because its creators imagined the replicator first. It's a good starting point. What if there were a device that could cheaply(1) create almost all possible goods(2) at reasonable quality(3). This is not a completely idle question. The Star Trek replicator is less functional than nanotech assemblers. Of what use most of the economy after the creation and distribution of such a device?

The claim that the glorious socialist future arrived without disruption isn't quite true: the Bell riots (DS9)?!

"You only get to see the officers of the Star Fleet." O'Brien isn't an officer. Many of the specialists in TOS (and TNG?) weren't officers (for example, the historian who loved Khan; the woman beloved by Picard). Their relationship with Star Fleet would seem to be about that of doctors and the U.S. Army: in for a while as necessary, then out. No Star Fleet Academy; no special Star Fleet training.

Sisko's son isn't an officer, either as the reporter-terrorist (DS9, season 7) or as the famous writer-scientist (in "The Visitor").

1 Power apparently comes from dilithium fusion.
2 A replicator, as usually depicted, can't create items larger than the replicator. That is, the space ships are assembled in space docks, not replicated in a planet-sized replicator powered by a collapsar.
3 The constant complaints about food replicators indicate their quality is like say, Red Lobster or the Olive Garden. Much better than the average Mom-'n'-Pop restaurant, but not up to home cooked by good chefs (that is, the Siskos). The theme of poor food is, of course, taken from military and westerns movies.

Matt M

"That said, someone bothered to invent an entire imaginary Klingon language, so in 40-odd years of TV series, films, books, etc, you’d think *someone* would’ve addressed the subject in a vaguely meaningful way."

I imagine this has something to do with a lack of economist students/graduates watching the show. Or at least watching it obsessively. But you're right, it is slightly curious.

(Although who sits through a Star Trek film and wonders about economics?)

David

Matt,

“Although who sits through a Star Trek film and wonders about economics?”

Good point. I think we’re in danger of being even more tragically geekish than people who scrutinise the technical specs of imaginary warp cores. And in the new film you can still buy branded beers. And I saw a Nokia phone.

John D

"I think we're in danger of being even more tragically geekish than people who scrutinise the technical specs of imaginary warp cores."

We crossed that bridge a few miles back.

AntiCitizenOne

Some of the rebooted BSG episodes touched on economics and in a very advanced way. The smuggling/child-kidnap episode, where Adama Jnr refused to shut down the smugglers as they stop the rationing powderkeg blowing was a good example.

David

AC1,

Well, quite. I wouldn’t want to make too much of the Somin quote, at least not seriously. But it struck me as interesting that one of the main “future-utopia” reference points in the popular imagination is socialist (or quasi-socialist) in nature, yet it remains remarkably vague and inconsistent in terms of how it might work. (There’s more detail in Heinlein, for instance, and he didn’t spend 40-odd years working on just one scenario.) Given the “post-capitalist” premise – and given the broader Trek leanings towards conspicuous moral agonising - it seems odd that the moral implications of utopian socialism should be so… unexplored.

TDK

"Well, this touches on Somin’s point, quoted above"

I'm not sure. Perhaps I was clear.

I was thinking that some art engages despite its lack of clarification. Think how so many rock lyrics give a hint rather than spell out the details. What is Pink Floyd's "Echoes" about? Contrast that with say Water's "Pigs (Three Different Kinds)". His ideas are spelled out with no subtlety at all. The latter song is dreadful because the listener if forced to realise that Waters is just a sixth form revolutionary at heart. In contrast the earlier lyric is evocative. The ambiguity adds rather than detracts.

In a similar way we find that early horror films relied on shadows and hints rather than graphic realism and were scarier as a result.

I'm making a claim for the artist to not explain everything. That doesn't mean that I disagree with you here. Star Trek's assumptions intrude into the plot line and frequently jar, particularly in the NG.

TDK

"Perhaps I was clear."

Perhaps I was UNclear.

JuliaM

"Well, this touches on Somin’s point, quoted above. In its various incarnations, Star Trek is a major influence on how many people imagine the future could (or should) be. "

Didn't someone raise 'Babylon 5' as a far more interesting and realistic portrayal of the future, in the last thread on this topic? Nothing remotely socialist there, yet I bet few people imagine it as the future that could be, in comparison to the world of Star Trek...

David

Julia,

“…yet I bet few people imagine it as the future that could be, in comparison to the world of Star Trek...”

That’s the thing, isn’t it? With Trek (especially TNG, etc) there’s a sense that viewers are being sold a worldview, part of which implies that money is a bad thing, recidivist, or at least rather grubby. The “no money” thing isn’t just an arbitrary background detail; it often features pointedly and with an air of condescension or disapproval.

William

I think this is called "taking it all a bit too seriously". Probably a good test for autism.

JuliaM

"Probably a good test for autism. "

Well, certainly easier to do over the Internet than that 'drop all the toothpicks' trick, anyway... ;)

Candice

In Trek, it seems all negative characteristics in the Trek universe have been offloaded onto alien races. Greed for Ferengis, violence for Klingons, scheming for Cardassians, xenophobia for Romulans, etc. Only humanity seems to be capable of perfection. Only the Vulcans seem to come close to us, but they fail because they have supressed emotion.

I posit that the reason the human characters and the Federation seem suspect to us is that they just plain boring. No flaws, no vices, no interest. The human leads of every series have to be "heroes" representing some bright shining future ideal. But we don't really want or believe that, do we? So the only way to get something of interest out of this setting is to either ignore the absurdities both technical and societal, or to turn them against themselves.

Think of money in Trek as being a transporter accident: It explodes the illusion of safety in this future world while giving us something interesting to work with. But as soon as the emergency is solved we resume normal beaming as well as put away our wallets. We the audience realize that the transporter is not perfect and that some form of exchange must still exist. But the people of the Trek universe go on as if nothing happens.

sk60

"We crossed that bridge a few miles back."

But not alone.

"Far from utopian, as I have heard others describe it, it seems to me an unpleasant dystopia. Military personnel have overtly political roles, and the Federation interferes with private individuals far too much. That Picard, and others, adopt an official ambassadorial role at the drop of a hat, indulging in political negotiations, is questionable in what claims to be a civil society..."

http://www.countingcats.com/?p=2587

Jamie

I think there is a bit of a left wing current in Science Fiction. One of Jack London's books has an introduction by Trotsky. I also recall something about Friederick Pohl's ex wife giving an account of the arguments between the Stalinist and Trotskyist Sci-Fi writers back in the 50s and that some black listed movie writers wrote for Sci-Fi mags under pseudonyms.

There's a PHD thesis in there "Left wing thought and the Science Fiction Tradition" time to start working on my impenetrable jargon.

georges

Is "Brave New World" left wing or right wing?

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