Is Star Trek’s Utopia Achievable?

Trekonomics

All fans of science fiction are familiar with Star Trek. It is an iconic science fiction show that has bequeathed the public with five TV series,1 one animated series, and a number of films over five decades. The storyline of Star Trek, however, spans three centuries. What makes Star Trek particularly attractive for many viewers is its progressivism. Star Trek depicts a future where the scourges of sickness, racism, poverty, and war have been eradicated on Earth and throughout much of the Federation, an inter-planetary alliance of which the Earth is a founding member.

trekonomicsThe elimination of poverty, hunger, and wage slavery has resulted from overcoming capitalism, markets, and currencies. Manu Saadia, Star Trek fan and contributing writer for Fusion.net, has written a book that delves into the utopian economics of the Trek universe: Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek (Piper Text Publishing, 2016).2 Trekonomics addresses a future from the mind of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry where intellectual property rights, greed, etc have been replaced by altruism and a creativity not spurred by wealth accumulation.

How did this economic cornucopia/utopia become possible? The Trekverse is a post-scarcity world. In a powerful statement against Luddism, technology is the major reason for a post-scarcity world, freeing people from wage slavery. One invention was particularly important; by the 24th century, replicators could create most anything.

Captain Janeway has replicator reconstitute matter.

Captain Janeway has replicator reconstitute matter.

One could well imagine that capitalists would have done everything in their power to keep replicators from development, monopolize them, or keep them off the market. Replicators would bring an end to markets and an end to need.

Star Trek episodes sometimes create curious conundrums though. For example, in the ST: Deep Space 9 episode “Shakaar,” a civil war threatens to break out on Bajor over unequal access to reclamators, machines capable of reclaiming — i.e., detoxifying and cleansing — the soil. Even though Bajor is still a prospective Federation member, for high-minded Federation morality the solution seems as simple as using replicators to create and gift the needed quantity of reclamators.

Dr Zimmerman face to face with his emergency medical hologram.

Dr Zimmerman face to face with his emergency medical hologram.

Freedom from need liberates people to better themselves and create for the wider society. It is utopian: “Because learning, making, and sharing is what makes life in the Federation worth living” (p 47). Flaunting wealth would be frowned upon in a world where wealth is relatively equally distributed. However, vanity still exists as evidenced by the inventor-based likenesses of Noonian Soong’s android Data or Dr Zimmerman’s Emergency Medical Hologram.

Freedom from Capitalism and the Tyranny of Markets

Saadia discusses in lieu of money, what will drive humans to create and innovate?

We are told that work in the Federation has a “life-affirming power” (p 47) and “fulfills the deep human need for belonging and recognition” (p 59).

In other words, humans are driven not by pecuniary reward but how they are perceived by others. Robert Frank wrote about this perceptual bias toward money; people care more about incomes in a relative than an absolute sense.3 That is, people compete for position.4 Frank even presented evidence of a biological basis for “positioning.”5, 6

In the Federation, however, currencies – for the most part (yes, there are credits and latinum) – are done away with.

If need has been banished, how humans will avoid the “tragedy of the commons”?

Saadia applies the typical capitalist postulation of the “tragedy of the commons” – that individuals will exploit the commons to accumulate as much profit as possible even to the point of extinguishing what could be a sustainable resource. Saadia gives as an example the depletion of Nova Scotia’s cod fishery. Actually, it was the overfishing of the Grand Banks that lies mainly within Newfoundland waters.7 Anarchists, for one, see it otherwise:

It should first be noted that the paradox of the “Tragedy of the Commons” is actually an application of the “tragedy of the free-for-all” to the issue of the “commons” (communally owned land). Resources that are “free for all” have all the problems associated with what is called the “Tragedy of the Commons,” namely the overuse and destruction of such resources; but unfortunately for the capitalists who refer to such examples, they do not involve true “commons.”

… What works for one cannot work as well for everyone in a given area…. because such land is not communally managed (as true commons are), the so-called Tragedy of the Commons is actually an indictment of what is, essentially, laissez-faire capitalist economic practices!

Work

While jobs are not required to live comfortably, if people desire jobs there is, according to Saadia, a meritocracy in place. However, “For those who can’t swing it, the imperative to build a meaningful life through work can become a source of unbearable anxiety” (p 60).

Sailing the solar wind.

Sailing the solar wind.

Why such anxiety? One can work on whatever one chooses in the Trekverse. For example, in the DS9 episode “Explorers,” Benjamin Sisko works on constructing — by himself, just for fun — an ancient Bajoran spaceship that rides the solar wind by sails.

What is Trekonomics?

Saadia sees trekonomics springing from the mind of noted science fiction author and polymath Isaac Asimov (p 13-14). The author identifies trekonomics as a Keynesian social democracy (p 211-238).

In the Federation “conspicuous consumption” is a capitalist vestige. Pointing to the “Kwakiutl’s potlatch,” Saadia notes, one people had averted capitalism and conspicuous consumption long ago (p 49). The potlatch, is (or was) practiced by several First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, one of which is the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl is a community of Kwakwaka’wakw in Tsax̱is on north Vancouver Island). In general, a potlatch is a Feast with the emphasis on giving.

First Nation lifeways are, in many important facets, the antithesis of capitalism; the potlatch of Pacific Northwest First Nations is one example. Thus, the egalitarianism of Star Trek was experienced centuries earlier by First Nations. In fact, some contend that Indigenous cultures practice a natural anarchism.8

Is the Trekverse an Anarchist Economy?

Saadia writes that the Federation is “loose and mildly anarchistic” (p 184). He also draws on Ursula Le Guin’s sci-fi novel The Dispossessed, which told the story of societies on the planets, Anarres and Urras.9 Urras was split between communists and capitalists while Anarres was run by anarcho-syndicalists. Saadia noted a commonality between Vulcans and Le Guin’s anarchists: “[T]he Vulcans themselves, seem to have a lot in common with the Annaresti—especially their disregard for material possessions and their cryptic thoughtfulness” (p 144-145).

The DS9 episode “Our Man Bashir” cast anarchism in a negative light, as revealed by the following conversation between ST officers in a holosuite:

Major Kira Nerys/Colonel Anastasia Komananov: “And what is your philosophy? Are you some kind of anarchist?”

Captain Benjamin Sisko/Dr Noah: “Quite the opposite. I believe in an orderly world … a far cry from the chaos we find ourselves in today.”

Granted that novels do not form Star Trek canon; nonetheless, in one Star Trek novel, Spock is mostly off base as to what anarchism is. He says, “Specifically, the term ‘anarchy,’ describes the absence of government, usually accompanied by political confusion. Typically, the anarchist movements have been revolutionary in nature, and often violent.”10

One Star Trek aficionado proffered that trekonomics was compatible with an anarchist economy known as participatory economics (parecon).11

This is decidedly askew because a key plank of parecon is opposition to entrenched hierarchies. Star Trek is very much grounded in the division between officers and subordinates, the chain-of-command, following orders, and such concepts that are anathema to anarchists. Elitism is evident as certain individuals are bestowed privileges with “rank, based on merit” (p 173). Moreover, the lust for political power does form storylines in Star Trek. This is clear in DS9 episodes “Home Front” and “Paradise Lost” in which a military coup is planned and executed on Earth by a rogue element in Starfleet.

An End to Imperialism

The guiding principle of the Federation is the Prime Directive, which is “against any form of territorial expansion or cultural hegemony” (p 179). Indeed, in the ST: The Next Generation episode “Who Watches the Watchers,” Captain Picard was willing to sacrifice his life to preserve the non-interference integrity of the Prime Directive.

How different and better the world would be with an effective non-interference directive today.

Trekonomics and Beyond

Trekonomics is far ranging in consideration of the Trekverse. A book review cannot touch on all the concepts, but suffice it to say that Saadia delves into externalities and the challenge of collective action vs free riders’ justice and security. Saadia writes, “Consensus can be reached through reason and persuasion” (p 133).

Critics will punch holes in the egalitarianism of Star Trek, remarking on the lack of strong women in command positions and the paucity of commanders of color. However, this stems not from Gene Roddenberry but reflects restrictions imposed by network politics (p 146).

In TNG's “The Measure of a Man,” android rights are on trial: is Data sentient?

In TNG’s “The Measure of a Man,” android rights are on trial: is Data sentient?

Although individual characters may express intolerance or prejudice to certain other species or genders; this is, in general, deeply frowned upon by Terrans in the Federation. The Terrans of the Federation even go so far as to grant their sentient inventions rights and freedom — whether androids or holograms.

Trekonomics would be incomplete if it did not discuss the Ferengis, a species of arch-capitalists. The Ferengis feature prominently on DS9; they and their risible Rules of Acquisition serve as character props to poke fun at the absurdity of capitalism. However, living among hu-mans caused the Ferengi consciousness to change.

Trekonomics is detailed, touching on topics from guano to GPS, the sci-fi of Robert Heinlein to Arthur C. Clarke, and environmentalism to psychology. Most interestingly, Saadia discusses whether humanity can achieve the Trekverse utopia.

Next: Trekonomics and the ending the occupation of Palestine.

• First published at American Herald Tribune.

  1. A sixth series will debut in 2017. []
  2. Rick Webb considered the topic deeply in 2013 at “The Economics of Star Trek: The Proto-Post Scarcity Economy,” November 2013. []
  3. Robert H. Frank, Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985): p 5. []
  4. Frank, p 7-10. []
  5. Frank, p 22-30. []
  6. Linda McQuaig gave an example in her book All You Can Eat: Greed, Lust and the New Capitalism (Toronto: Penguin, 2001) p 102-103. “There’s an interesting study that illustrates the importance of relative social positioning. A person is asked to choose between two possible scenarios. In one scenario, the person will earn a salary of $100,000 a year while everyone else earns $90,000. In the other scenario, the person will earn $110,000 a year, while everyone else earns $200.000. Now, if humans were simply interested in accumulating material possessions for the joy of having them and were indifferent to relative positioning, they would want to earn the larger salary, since it would enable them to buy more goods. But in fact, when asked to choose, a substantial proportion of people choose the lower salary. While they will be able to buy fewer goods, they will wind up with more than those around them, making them feel more important…” []
  7. One fishboat captain admitted “we were evil” – that every country’s fishers had knowingly pillaged the cod until that fishery was completely devastated, all for immediate gain. Quoted in Robert Hunter, 2030: Confronting Thermogeddon in our Lifetime (McClelland and Stewart, 2002): p 3. []
  8. Clifton Nicholas a Kanien’kehá:ka (keepers of the Eastern Door of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy; Mohawk) warrior from Kanehsatake (Oka) is asked: “I’ve heard peeps say that are similarities between anarchism and some Indigenous cultures …?”
    “Yeah, as anarchists, I think that is a natural thing for the Haudenosaunee people to be anarchists.”
    A Jesuit described the Haudenosaunee people: “Each and everyone of them are a sovereign unto themselves; they follow no one and take orders from no one. So that to me speaks volumes about being an anarchist, who are sovereign unto yourself. You have no kings; you have no masters. Our people historically did what they wanted, when they wanted, and how they wanted – both the men and the women.”“Clifton Nicholas – The Warrior and the roles,” (video) Submedia, 20 April 2014. See 7:28 – 8:18. []
  9. Ursala K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1974, 1994). []
  10. It is futile to comment here. How else would anarchism come about but through revolution? Second the very existence of the state is violent, and using violence to overthrow violence is acceptable for Vulcan logic as long as the many benefit. This writer, however, does not argue that a revolution must be violent. Simon Hawke, Star Trek: The Patrian Transgression (Pocket Books, 1994): p 63. []
  11. See Matt Grinder “The Economics of Star Trek: Unofficial Economics of Star Trek,” Vancouver Parecon Collective, 30 September 2012. Retrieved from vanparecon.resist.ca. []
Kim Petersen is a former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: kimohp@gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.