Tuesday, May 26, 2009

To Boldly Go: Part V, Socialism In Star Trek

I still have posts to finish on Voyager, Enterprise, and all the Trek feature films, but this was another big one that I figured was worth every Trek fan's time. A few weeks ago in the days leading up to the new film's release, Trek fan and law prof Ilya Somin asked on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, When and Why did the Federation Turn Socialist? The nature of the political system of the Star Trek universe and the political economy in particular has always been an intriguing subject for discussion amongst Trek fans, probably because we were never given much, other than veiled hints of democracy and similar platitudes. We did see the Federation President and the Federation Council on occasion, but we never saw elections, never heard a word on the legislative process, and never once saw a glimpse of the non-Starfleet legal system. In addition to the blog post above, Somin has previously written a piece on the topic in National Review in 2007 entitled Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Federation Tax Collectors.

Both are well worth the read for Trek fans with any interest in politics, but to a certain extent, I take issue with the earnest tone of the pieces and many of the commenters. It's meaningful that a program with over 700 hour long episodes amongst five series never actually deals with the economic and political system that holds the Federation together and rather than debate the few scraps of information thrown our way, the starting point should be Star Trek's overarching philosophy. Star Trek is about a future where man has abolished material want and need, but the Federation isn't so much socialist as it is a post-scarcity utopia.

The Star Trek captains love their lines about how earth has eliminated war, poverty, and hunger and it's those last two that are key. Whatever the writers may want to say about humanity finally deciding to care about one another (as in DS9's Past Tense), the most important element in eliminating hunger and poverty in the Trek universe seems to have been technology. The Next Generation introduced the matter replicator, where food, clothing, and other essential (and non-essential items) can be instantaneously assembled from their basic atomic building blocks. In a time of plenty, materialism is essentially just a thing of the past. The few "things" we see our characters prize have emotional value- gifts, antiques, and hand-crafted items.

The key to Star Trek is we don't see the nitty gritty of how the non-Star Fleet world operates. Sisko's father has a restaurant and Picard's brother has a vineyard, but we never see how these businesses are conducted. No money must mean no taxes, so I suppose that means these folks would conduct their business any way they want to. Perhaps most of what they need to conduct their business is presumably provided by the government or acquired through barter, but the fact is, we just don't know. Star Trek was never designed for us to know that sort of thing, because even with the technological innovations, they can't exactly say, "here's the perfect government and political economy as part of our fictional show in the future." If they were to give us specifics, those specifics would doubtlessly be mind-blowingly stupid.

Star Trek's positive view of the future works precisely because we don't get a real sense of political economy. There are certainly socialist elements to the Federation government of Star Trek, but more important than the government is the idea that huamnkind itself has evolved beyond the petty disputes of today's world. However left-leaning the Star Trek writers have been, they've always been smart enough to avoid lauding particular political systems. In fact, while one could argue the socialism implicit in the background of Trek, one could also argue a more ever present recognition of individuality and the rights of the individual. For all Captain Picard's posturing about their being no money in the 24th century, his real point is that the end of materialism has enabled mankind to better itself and permit individuals to fulfill their own dreams without regard to the sorts of material worries we have today. Again, how this works out in practice isn't clear, but that isn't really the point.

Ultimately what Star Trek has to say about human nature and what humankind's potential actually is says far more about the shows politics than any of the more specific mentions on screen. As any middling political thinker can tell you, political philosophy tends to start and end with our views of human nature. If you can accept what Trek says about the evolving nature of man, than the ultimate structure of government, whatever it may be, is supposed to be the logical extension of that political philosophy. It's a deeper point, one larger then I'd have time for in this little blog, but it's a step removed from the question of Star Trek's socialism.


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