Star Trek, in all its spin-offs and manifestations, has always been one of my favorite entertainment franchises. But lets face it, the world of Star Trek is a Utopian socialist fantasy. Realizing this fact actually makes watching Star Trek more enjoyable. I get a kick out of watching and pointing out the absurd economic and political fallacies in the show. There are two main aspects to the socialist fantasy of Star Trek, the economic and the cultural. Economically the show is yet another instance of the classic utopian socialist fantasy of a society without money. Culturally the show reflects the prejudices and misconceptions of modern paternalistic liberalism.
Gene Rodenberry imagined The United Federation of Planets as a society that had moved beyond money. Supposedly the invention of replicator technology, in which energy can be transformed into any kind of matter, had created a post-scarcity society for which money was now superfluous. We are expected to believe that the citizens of the Federation have moved beyond greed to a higher level of human consciousness. With replicators people are now free to follow a higher purpose than the base acquisition of personal wealth. A couple of quotes form Captain Picard illustrate the general attitude towards money and wealth taken by the writers of the show:
A lot has changed in three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things’. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.
The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century… The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.
This attitude towards money is utopian, wrongheaded and naive. Money is not evil or a symbol of greed. It is simply a universal medium of exchange. Money is necessary for any society functioning above subsistence level. Not using money is in fact a step backward towards primitiveness, not a step forward into the future.
Money prices are a rational way of assigning value to resources. Prices are necessary to decide how resources are to be divided up amongst people. A society without money would be impossible, even with replicator technology. No money means no prices, and thus no way to rationally decide on the distribution of resources. It would fall into the socialist calculation problem on a massive scale. Without any money at all the problem would apply not just to the state, but to every single individual in society. No one would be able to decide anything. Individuals would have no way to know how they should use their time. There would be no way to decide who gets what or what anybody should do.
Even if we assume that replicators produce all end-use goods for individual consumption this does not completely eliminate the problem of scarcity. The replicators still need energy to function. How is this energy produced and who produces it? If everyone’s needs are supposedly taken care of by replicators, who will make the replicators and why would they do this? How is it decided which people will do it?
End-use goods are not the only resources that can be scarce. Individuals, land and time are also scare resources. They require some kind of medium of exchange to assign value them to and make it possible to rationally allocate them. Why in a post-scarcity society would individuals subordinate themselves to Captain Picard? Why couldn’t everyone be captain? Why would Scotty be the engineer on The Enterprise instead of some other ship? Even if Scotty absolutely loved to engineer, how would he know what to engineer?
Land and time are also obviously scarce in the universe of the Federation. Starfleet is always out looking for new planets to colonize. How is it decided who has property on Earth, and who will be a colonist? Colonization and exploration take time, as do all other activities in the world of the Federation. People are not instantly transported from one planet to the next, nor do scientific experiments yield instant results. How do people decide how best to use their time if there is no way to rationally allocate? How much time should each person spend working for the Federation and how much time should they spend for leisure? It would have to either be centrally controlled and backed by force, or left up to the whim of the individual.
The Federation also engages in warfare with other civilizations. Why would they do this if there was no scarcity? Not only do they engage in warfare, but sometimes they lose in battle. How could they ever possibly lose if resources were not scarce? Why would they go into battle with 100 ships instead of 100,000 ships? After all, if resources are not scarce they can immediately conjure up 100,000 new ships instantly at no cost whatsoever. Obviously the idea of post-scarcity is bunk, even in the fantasy world of Star Trek. Why even write stories about such a society? There would be no conflict, and thus nothing interesting to write about.
There is certainly no private property in the Federation. In all the episodes of the show throughout the years there have been no references to private companies in the Federation. No company logos and no advertisements are anywhere to be seen. No consumer products are shown other than standard issue Federation or Starfleet gear. There is no evidence that Federation citizens are engaged in commerce or trade of any sort. No one has a private starship, or even a private shuttlecraft. It seems that people must either join Starfleet or work for the Federation. There are no other employers. Most characters are Starfleet officers, but sometimes there appear characters that are politicians, diplomats or scientists. We can safely assume that all scientists must work for the government.
Based on its premises, the Federation would necessarily have to operate like a totalitarian communist state. Unfortunately it is portrayed as a utopian dream society rather than the nightmare dystopia that all communist states in history have been. There are references throughout the show to the fact that The Federation is a perfect society without war, disease, poverty or hunger. Clearly a society like this without money, where all goods are produced by a machine and all people only work for the betterment of others can be classified as a utopian socialist fantasy. I put Gene Rodenberry in the same category as the utopian socialists Robert Owen, Charles Fourier and Jacque Fresco. These men have all envisioned perfect utopian socialist societies of one variety or another.
Fourier and Owen were 19th century utopian socialist philosophers that imagined future societies without money. Fourier called his imaginary society The Phalanx after the ancient Greek military formation. The Phalanx was imagined as a society of exactly 1,620 people living communally in a building that would be specially designed to have both urban and rural features. This idea actually gained a following in its time and 29 different communities were founded in the US based on Fourier’s ideas. The most famous were La Reunion in Texas, The North American Phalanx in New Jersey and Community Place in New York. None of these communities lasted more than a few years. They all eventually failed as the enthusiasm of the settlers waned and people moved away. The histories written about these communities don’t usually say so, but when you read between the lines it becomes obvious that lack of private property was the main reason for people leaving.
Robert Owen himself attempted to found a utopian community without any money or private property at New Harmony Indiana in 1825. By 1829 it had already collapsed. The individualist anarchist Josiah Warren was an original participant in the New Harmony experiment and offers some insights as to why it failed:
We had a world in miniature — we had enacted the French revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. It appeared that it was nature’s own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us. Our “united interests” were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation.
The Venus Project, which was founded by Jacque Fresco in the 1970s is probably the utopian vision that is most similar to Rodenberry’s Federation. I would not be surprised if Fresco actually got his ideas by watching Star Trek. Despite Fresco’s claims to be some sort of innovative social genius there is not much different about The Venus Project from other utopian fantasies. Fresco claims to have invented a “New Social Design” based on what he calls the “Resource Based Economy.” In their own words:
The term and meaning of a Resource-Based Economy was originated by Jacque Fresco. It is a system in which all goods and services are available without the use of money, credits, barter or any other system of debt or servitude. All resources become the common heritage of all of the inhabitants, not just a select few. The premise upon which this system is based is that the Earth is abundant with plentiful resource; our practice of rationing resources through monetary methods is irrelevant and counter productive to our survival.
Modern society has access to highly advanced technology and can make available food, clothing, housing and medical care; update our educational system; and develop a limitless supply of renewable, non-contaminating energy. By supplying an efficiently designed economy, everyone can enjoy a very high standard of living with all of the amenities of a high technological society.
Yawn. We’ve heard it all before. No money. No private property. The cool paintings are probably the only thing that is actually original about The Venus Project. The idea that scarcity is artificial and resources can be distributed according to a central plan is as old as Marxism. Many have taken to calling the Venus Project “Marxism with Robots.” Fresco envisions society being planned by a central computer that decides how all resources are to be used and distributed. Ironically there have been several episodes of Star trek that seem to warn against just this possibility. Presumably central planning is fine as long as humans are doing it, and The Federation maintains that human touch. Or the writers of Star Trek just never thought that deeply about it.
While economically the Federation is a utopian socialist fantasy, culturally the values and ideas expressed in Star Trek reflect those of modern day liberalism. This is probably because the writers are California liberals and they write their own biases and prejudices into the show. Elitist liberal cultural preferences prevail everywhere in the show. To give just one example, apparently everyone in the future only listens to classical music and opera. No lowbrow styles like rock, heavy metal, country or hip-hop are ever heard. Everyone that is not in the military has some sort of academic career like a botanist, historian or archeologist. Time is spent by these people jet-setting between conferences in their various fields on different planets. It’s like a universe filled with NPR listeners.
The Original Series episodes were mostly space adventures with a military-socialist bent. Everyone had a rank, a color-coded shirt and they all answered to the wise all-knowing cowboy captain. By the time The Next Generation came out The Enterprise had become sort of a floating UN in space, spreading human rights and social justice to the galaxy. Many of the episodes deal allegorically with the hot-button social issues of the time like gay identity, the rights of the disabled and assisted suicide from a liberal perspective. Other episodes often deal with bureaucratic structures of government and interplanetary diplomacy. One thing you never see is an episode where the crew of The Enterprise meets an alien race that has no government. This is probably beyond the imaginary capabilities of the writers.
All the societies with which the crew interact are also centrally structured. Whenever the crew beams down to make contact with a new society or a new race it is always basically the same. They go right away to meeting with the planet’s ruler or ruling body. The aliens all seem to wear the same clothes as well. Aliens for the most part are treated as members of groups, not individuals. They are given characteristics based on their group membership and they are assumed to share interests based on their race. It is a kind of intergalactic version of racial identity politics.
Probably the worst example of present day liberal prejudices coming through is the treatment of the Ferengi, the only civilization in the galaxy whose society is based on free trade and private property. While Starfleet officers are all depicted as handsome, noble, heroic, and self-sacrificing, a sort of “New Socialist Man” if you will, the Ferengi are depicted as monkey-like, money grubbing, sniveling little wretches. Many of their physical features as well as their behavior are reminiscent of the worst Nazi stereotypes of Jews. This reveals far more about the bigoted nature of liberalism than it does about how societies with free enterprise look and operate.
The writers get everything backwards when it comes to the Ferengi. The culture is depicted as backward and misogynistic. The government is depicted as bureaucratic and oppressive, while the communist government of The Federation somehow preserves individual freedom. This may be the biggest lie of all peddled by the writers. There is never any reference to rules or laws in the Federation, while the Ferengi supposedly have a huge code of 285 laws known as “The Rules of Acquisition.” They even have an enforcement agency called the FCA to make sure no Feregi step out of line and accidentally treat their employees well or give a customer a fair deal. Yet contracts are also supposedly sacred to Ferengi.
When the home planet of the Ferengi is visited the bureaucrats are shown to be nasty, venal and greedy — just as we would expect bureaucrats to be. But why aren’t Federation bureaucrats like this? Why is it the society based on free trade that has backward cultural values and an oppressive government when in reality we see the exact opposite? In the real world countries that have a greater degree of economic freedom also tend to have more personal freedoms, progressive social values and gender equality. But this is not how liberals would like to see the world. They dislike reactionary social values, and they dislike capitalism and economic freedom. So naturally they put the two together to please themselves.
So how can we explain this? Why is it that The Star Trek writers have these biases? Why would they create this kind of fantasy world? It is because they grew up in a system where the ideas of individual freedom, capitalism, private property and trade are all treated with hostility. Most people in this country that went to public school have been raised to have these values. The military and the government are treated as ideal social structures in public schools. Central authority is praised. The government is where all prosperity is assumed to come from. Economics and logic are not only not taught, they are actively shunned. Racial identity politics and multiculturalism are taught. Children are taught that their value comes from their membership in an ethnic group, not from their own individuality. Politicians and Generals are celebrated as heroes, while capitalists and businessmen are treated as villains. Given that all these prejudices are taught to us in school, it is not surprising that they are reflected in fantasies about the future.