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Socialism in space

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8th September 2016 marked the fiftieth anniversary of ‘Star Trek’. Many see the enduring classic of science fiction as a vision of post-capitalist society. George Martin Fell Brown examines Star Trek and socialism. Español

The original series of Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry, depicted the voyages of the starship Enterprise, which would “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

It has since become a science fiction staple, with five live-action series, a children’s animated series, 13 movies, and countless books. It set the template for subsequent science fiction shows, and produced the first passionate geek fandom. And, for some, it served as a gateway to socialist ideas.

Coming at the height of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, Star Trek was willing to depict a starship with a multiracial crew, including black, Asian and Russian crewmembers. Humanity itself was just one part of the ‘United Federation of Planets’, including a variety of alien species, all with their own cultures, but working together for the common good.

Despite all the military designations of the characters, the crew ventured in the space for the purposes of peaceful exploration. And they were guided by a “Prime Directive” against intervening to impose their ideals on developing societies. The show aired as audiences witnessed the horrors of US imperialist intervention in Vietnam.

The later spin-off series came out during a period of neoliberalism and capitalist triumphalism, stretching from the era of Reagan and Thatcher to the era of Bush and Blair. For those who grew up being told “there is no alternative” to capitalism, it was quite an eye-opener to hear ‘The Next Generation’s’ Captain Picard declare that, in his world, “the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

Space socialism?

Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry had a vision that “the much-maligned common man and common woman has an enormous hunger for brotherhood” and could move “beyond most petty beliefs that have for so long kept mankind divided.” The world he depicted was free of bigotry and poverty, where abundance rendered money unnecessary, and class divisions were abolished. The show’s characters never used the words “socialism” or “communism” to describe their society, but that’s what their society was.

Roddenberry’s desire for a better society for mankind is shared by Marxists, along with adherents to countless other ideologies. The contentious question is usually about how to move beyond those basic, “petty” belief systems and satisfy that “hunger for brotherhood.”

Is it achieved through reform or revolution? Class struggle or class collaboration? The collective action of the masses, the genius of a brilliant individual, or the objective consequence of technological development? Roddenberry sidestepped these questions for the most part, by setting the series after society had already transformed itself.

Glimpses into the past were confined to passing references and the occasional time travel episode. We know there was a period of wars and genocide, where millions died, poverty and homelessness were rampant, unaccountable ‘magistrates’ ran kangaroo courts, and the ‘Earth Army’ controlled its soldiers with drugs.

We know a turning point came in 2024. A neo-Trotskyist government came to power in France. Riots in San Francisco prompted significant political reform – although in reality, riots are more often an excuse for state repression; it takes more serious political organisation to extract reforms. And armed struggle by Irish republicans unified Ireland, again in spite of the dead end that the individual terrorism of the latter-day IRA has proven to be.

Continuity gets completely incoherent after that. But, by 2063, humans developed faster-than-light technology, and the ‘Vulcans’ introduced us to their peaceful, logical, socialist ideal that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

While the Federation of Star Trek was a quasi-socialist society, Roddenberry was not a socialist, and definitely not a Marxist. He was a liberal secular humanist, albeit more optimistic than others about humanity’s potential for change.

The original series pushed the boundaries of mainstream culture of the 1960s, but often fell behind the increasingly radicalised counterculture of the same era. There was even an episode making fun of hippies, and an awful episode, written by Roddenberry himself, singing the praises of the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Even so, Star Trek presented a vision that kept just enough vagueness that it could appeal to Marxists and liberals alike. The sheer extent of socialism in the world of Star Trek even generated scepticism among the other creative minds behind the series.

Ronald D Moore, who wrote for ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and served as showrunner for ‘Deep Space Nine’, explained his disagreement: “Gene had decreed that money most emphatically did not exist in the Federation, nor did ‘credits’, and that was that. Personally, I’ve always felt this was a bunch of hooey, but it was one of the rules and that’s that.”

Utopian storytelling

Whether or not Gene Roddenberry was a conscious socialist, Star Trek serves as an example of ‘utopian’ science fiction. This means the conscious depiction of a future society that has resolved all or most of the problems we face today. Utopian fiction doesn’t necessarily correspond to utopian politics, which largely involves trying to end capitalism by making a sufficiently moral or ‘logical’ argument to the capitalist class, sometimes constructing doomed models of an ‘ideal’ society as islands within capitalism to advance this.

Most science fiction today shies away from utopian storytelling. We get militaristic dystopias, post-apocalyptic hellscapes, or worlds that are just like today but with flying cars. This can reflect an author’s disbelief in the possibility of socialism, a tendency which the backwards political march of the past 30 years can exacerbate.

But it also reflects a belief that a utopian setting prevents the conflict necessary for engaging drama. So even anticapitalist science fiction authors would rather write in a capitalist dystopia than a socialist utopia. This has the unfortunate effect of making a lot of anticapitalist science fiction come off as unnecessarily pessimistic.

Some of the best storytelling on Star Trek utilised its utopian setting for a different kind of storytelling. There could be new sources of conflicts, and old conflicts could be resolved in new ways.

One of the classic original series episodes was ‘The Devil in the Dark’. This episode, about a space monster terrorising a bunch of blue-collar space workers and killing them one by one, should sound familiar. It’s the same plot as ‘Alien’ (1979), a brilliant work of anticapitalist science fiction in its own right. But Alien releases its monster into a capitalist dystopia, rather than a socialist utopia. The resulting conflict is resolved in completely different ways. In Alien it’s a question of simple survival. In ‘The Devil in the Dark’, the possibility is posed that the monster itself could be understood – and even reasoned with.

Critics of socialism often accuse socialists of thinking we have all the answers. In reality, socialism, by answering the big questions of today, will open up a whole slew of new questions that aren’t even asked under capitalism.

The best Star Trek series for taking up these questions was The Next Generation. This is seen, for example, in how the series approached the Prime Directive, the principle that the Federation should not interfere with any alien species that hadn’t developed faster-than-light ‘warp’ travel. At the same time as removing the possibility of drama created by the conflict of imperialist intervention, this posed new ethical dilemmas when those civilisations were endangered by natural disasters or other forces. As such, the principle was mocked by a layer of fans (and the recent movies).

But The Next Generation posed the question as a serious ethical dilemma. Such dilemmas were never really considered during early capitalism’s imperial drive for slaves and colonies. They are barely considered even today, the time of late capitalism’s imperial wars for resources and prestige.

Even better is when the show used the possibilities of technology and the possibilities of the social change to probe fundamental questions about what it means to be human.

In ‘The Measure of a Man’, the android Data is forced to make the case for his own humanity against a sceptical admiral. In ‘Darmok’, the Federation is confronted with an alien race, the Tamarians, who communicate exclusively through metaphors that only fellow Tamarians are familiar with. In ‘The Inner Light’, a space probe forces Captain Picard, over a span of 20 minutes, to live an entire life through the mind of an alien on a dying world. None of these storylines challenge the status quo of today, but they do point to the new ways we can go forward if we move beyond that status quo.

Humanity on trial

While Star Trek was perfectly adept at bringing up new ideas for its utopian setting, the standard technique of utopian fiction is use the better tomorrow to comment on the injustices of today. For example, Edward Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ (1888) and William Morris’s ‘News From Nowhere’ (1890) feature people from the present who marvel at the utopian society they visit and better appreciate the problems of their own time.

The series premiere of The Next Generation went a step further, having a godlike alien, ‘Q’, place humanity on trial for “being a grievously savage race.” It was up to the Enterprise crew to acknowledge the crimes of humanity’s past – our present – while making the case that fundamental change was possible.

More often, the show made use of “boldly going where no one has gone before,” allowing the Federation to constantly encounter new forces that represented the worst aspects of present-day humanity.

Later series brought forward their own approaches. Deep Space Nine centered on a Federation space station engaging in diplomacy with other forces. ‘Voyager’ saw a single Federation ship stranded on the other side of the galaxy. And ‘Enterprise’ was a prequel set before the Federation was founded. All of this provided our socialistic explorers with a ready supply of warlords, spies, gangsters and bigots.

In those episodes, it was our heroes who cast judgment at these representatives of our present society. They tackled issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and religious intolerance. The results varied wildly in quality.

One of the more widely mocked Star Trek episodes was ‘Let That Be Your Last Battlefield’, an original series ‘message’ episode about the evils of racism. It depicted a fight between two members of an alien race that was half-black and half-white. None of the enterprise crew could understand why they were fighting, until one of them finally explained his hatred for the other: “I am black on the right side… All of his people are white on the right side.”

This brought out the weaker side of Roddenberry’s vision, and demonstrates clearly he was no Marxist. It’s accepted that racism is bad. But no thought is given to the social forces that lead to racism. There’s no war and no history of enslavement or repression. The two aliens are racist simply because they hold racist views. So while racism is condemned, it is to be combatted by colour blindness, or, in this instance, dyslexia.

There was a wider problem in which the various alien races throughout Star Trek tend to embody a single property of humanity: the Vulcans are cold and logical, the Klingons are warlike, the Borg are ultra-conformist and all-consuming, the Ferengi are capitalists. The last is a particularly strange case, since capitalism can’t function without workers to exploit, so a race of capitalists seems to make little sense. And, all too often, the judgment of alien races representing humanity’s vices feels less like condemnation of society, and more like condemnation of others.

But, as the franchise developed, some of the recurring races were fleshed out simply by necessity. If you want to tell a story about a strike, that won’t work in the classless utopia of the Federation. Fortunately, we have the Ferengi, a race devoted to capitalism. Thus you get the Deep Space Nine episode “Bar Association”. But once you have a strike, you need workers to go on strike, so there must be Ferengi workers. At this point, the original conception of the Ferengi as a race of capitalists no longer applies.

Instead, the Ferengi become a race enslaved by an entrenched capitalist system that other Ferengi are capable of challenging. Rather than the Federation chiding the Ferengi for their greed, it supports the Ferengi workers in their strike.

Ronald D Moore, Deep Space Nine’s showrunner, specialised in this sort of thing and made it a feature of that series. Confined to a space station, it was able to focus in much more detail on a limited number of alien races. The first big focus was the conflict between the militaristic Cardassians and the deeply religious Bajorans, a stand-in for the Israel-Palestine conflict first introduced in The Next Generation. Later on we are introduced to the ‘Dominion’, a dark counterpart to the Federation, devoted to imperial conquest, and adhering to a rigid caste system.

Over the course of the series, these societies, along with old favourites like the Klingons and Romulans – and not-so-favourites like the Ferengi – were developed from abstractions of humanity’s present ideas to societies ruled by humanity’s present social structures. By the end of the series, the Ferengi government was instituting reforms like a tax on bribery, while the Cardassians, central antagonists throughout the series, lead a revolution against their own government.

All of this was helmed by the same Ronald D Moore who derided Roddenberry’s socialistic vision as “a bunch of hooey.” But when dealing with the alien stand-ins for humanity’s present, he one-upped Roddenberry, showing that even they could move beyond their petty beliefs.

The vision versus the bottom line

While Star Trek was the vision of Gene Roddenberry, it was also a television franchise under a capitalist studio system. The conflict between art as art and art as a commodity is a recurring problem under capitalism, and that problem is magnified in a long-running series.

The show almost never made it to air when network NBC rejected its pilot as “too cerebral” and ultimately forced a bigger focus on action. Throughout its history, there was a constant tug-of-war between Star Trek’s vision of a better mankind, and the studios’ pursuit of profit. The result was a show that was both of and ahead of its time.

Although Star Trek was good right from the start at portraying racism as a thing of the past, it had a bigger problem when it came to sexism.

Things were more egalitarian in the pilot episode, ‘The Cage’. But, after studio intervention, women were relegated to lower-ranking roles, and given separate uniforms with skimpy miniskirts. This prompted one of the more amusing tugs-of-war between Roddenberry and the studio. When The Next Generation began, the main cast still had gendered uniforms, with suits for the men and skimpy miniskirts for the women. But Roddenberry insisted that, since the Federation had moved beyond sexism, the extras should include women in suits and men in skimpy miniskirts. This lasted for three seasons until the studio agreed to get rid of the miniskirts altogether.

Another tug-of-war occurred over LGBT+ issues. While the show did a number of episodes with allegories for homophobia and transphobia, there has been a long battle with executives to include LGBT+ characters. Rick Berman, who served as executive producer for the later series, went so far as to block production of a Next Generation episode featuring an HIV-Aids allegory, and to release a press statement to quash fan theories that a minor character in one of the movies was gay.

The series’ first LGBT+ character, Deep Space Nine’s Lieutanant Dax, was a perfect example of this tug-of-war. She from a species called the ‘Trill’, who serve as host organisms for a symbiotic species that transfers memories and personalities from previous hosts. While Dax had romantic relationships with both women and men, her same-sex relationships were presented as having begun under a previous male host.

The later Star Trek series were continually bogged down by low ratings, and the result was heavier studio intervention. Deep Space Nine was constantly asked to reinvent itself, bringing in new characters, and changing its premise, in the hopes of boosting ratings. The writers were mostly able to make the best with what they got, but it didn’t help the ratings. Deeming Deep Space Nine “too dark”, executives asked Voyager to lighten things up, to the point where it often felt like a children’s show.

When Enterprise came along, the studio hoped to bring in new viewers by hiding its connection with the rest of Star Trek. The words “Star Trek” were removed from the series’ name. The opening credits were accompanied by a pop song instead of orchestral music. The show regularly began relying on time travel as a cheap way to explain away continuity errors. And, in a desperate attempt at making things ‘sexy’, a “decontamination chamber” was introduced where characters would remove “contaminants” by stripping to their underwear and rubbing “decontamination gel” over each other’s bodies.

This process came to a head with the new movie series. Marketed as “not your father’s Star Trek”, creative direction was handed to Armageddon screenwriter JJ Abrams who openly dismissed the television series because “it always felt too philosophical for me.” Profitability came at the expense of turning it into a bunch of trivial action movies. Chris Pine, who plays the new Captain Kirk, explained this in strictly capitalist terms: “You can’t make Star Trek cerebral in 2016. It just wouldn’t work in today’s marketplace.” With that, the tug-of-war was over, and the bad guys won.

If present-day Star Trek has succumbed to the pressures of “today’s marketplace,” at least we still have the remainder of the series’ 50-year history. It points to the possibility of creating a better world, one that we can fight for now, even if we don’t use the utopian methods Roddenberry had in mind. A world where we have whole new questions to ponder, and capitalism, imperialism, bigotry, and the pressures of “today’s marketplace” will be a quaint relic of a bygone era.

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