Saturday, May 26, 2007

Star Trek and the Great Utopian Sellout

by Prof. E.W. Wilder, Professor Emeritus of Modern Poetry at EastWestern University, Purewater Campus in Purewater, Kansas.

Many of the current accounts of the socio-politics of Star Trek are saddeningly simplistic. They ignore the underlying social schema at work in either series. Indeed, the common notion that the Federation in the original series (TOS) represented the UN or alternately the NATO allies versus the Klingon Red Horde quite misses the point. The characters on the series itself were aware of this obvious parallel (This is mentioned on several occasions in Bernardi), and I'm sure such a thing was what the writers of TOS had in mind.

But such views smack of critical dilettantism: the real players in the creation of look, outlook, and feel of both the original Star Trek series and in Star Trek: the Next Generation are the deep-seated social forces that control the lives of the writers, actors, director and producers who create the shows. It is not only from the outward facts of the time and place of the shows' creations that we must view these series, but from the unspoken cultural undercurrents, the trends and tendencies underlying and undercutting our lives, and, especially, our notions of the future as a function of Marxist reification.

From this point of view the Federation becomes radically changed: the real difference is not between the Federation and its ostensible enemies, but between the old and new shows and how each of them reveals the utopian ideals of its time.

The characters in TOS, with the Federation's great diversity of background, don't, in fact, represent the United States and its allies; rather they represent a Marxist utopia. How else can we explain the presence of Mr. Chekov on the bridge of the Enterprise? This is hardly a continuation of Cold War hostilities. In the late 1960s there was but one system that would have allowed such a collective, yet militaristic inclusiveness, and it wasn't Capitalism. Capitalism was, at the time, having its own struggles with success: rather than being the great uniter, bent on assimilating nations like Korea and Vietnam into its ur-culture, Capitalism was busy simply trying to fend off what looked to many like a much more equitable and desirable system. Capitalism relies on the exportation of its culture through trade, not through military force, and the Enterprise in TOS seemed hardly interested in trade. Indeed, the very competitive nature of Capitalist thought tends to lead to divisiveness, pitting nation against nation, corporation against corporation in an anarchistic grab for market power. TOS seems to have none of that sort of strife, indicating that competition itself is one of the problems the Federation has managed to do away with.

The Capitalistic tendencies in the United States were at variance with the intellectual and social undercurrents of the time anyway, being seen as the main cause of many of the late 20th Century's disparities in wage and civil rights. Johnson's Great Society is a good example. At a critical moment in the Cold War, it ushered sweeping changes into American politics: changes far more in line with the Communist enemy than with traditional ideas of an America populated by rugged individualists. This if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em attitude can be seen only as Cold War capitulation which had effects on American political thought and especially on American notions of utopian idealism far more important and long-lasting than even the grassroots hippie movement. The social programs the Great Society created have been persistent enough that even the neo-conservative movement of 1994 has been hard-pressed to get rid of them.

At the time, Johnson's Great Society showed the way toward a perfect future free of poverty, pain and suffering, full of equality and opportunity, toward the inevitable Marxist dominance of socio-political thought. The Federation of TOS, then, was the ultimate evolution of a Marxist ideal, not the result of Capitalism's competitive brutality.

The Enterprise's scientific mission in TOS also indicates a pro-Marxist attitude. Not ironically, the Soviets were still ahead in the space-race in the pre-Apollo America of TOS's inception. Exploration and science are idealistic notions far more befitting the already idealistic Marxist state than one corrupted by its Capitalistic acquisitiveness. Capitalism explores and conducts research solely for the sake of profit: it researches drugs for an aging population, geology for more oil. It does not spend real money on fast and capable starships just to fritter them away on abstract notions like "science" and "exploration."

As we all know, however, acquisitiveness always wins in the end. Lenin's great Marxist experiment, his ideological progeny, the Soviets, eventually fell due to the avaricious nature of humanity. In the same way, America's sharp left turn of the 1960s was fuel for political backlash in the 1980s and was in outright retreat by the 1990s.

Enter Star Trek: the Next Generation (TNG), a show much less about exploration as such, much more about war (instead of one enemy there are now about three, depending on who is counting), entertainment (the Holodeck--need I say more?), and social climbing (Whorf, and, in a way Ensign Crusher are good examples--the newly arrived immigrant and the upstart entrepreneur respectively). These are attributes all of a thoroughly bourgeois society. In this culture, the average person, the member of the Enterprise crew, seems primarily interested in entertainment and social interaction: relationships between principle members of the cast tend to take prominence almost over everything else. Captain Picard and Dr. Beverly Crusher are a good example of this, as well as are the not-so-subtle flirtations between Riker and Counselor Troi (Projansky 39). The "family values" so much a part of bourgeois capitalism (every household needs to have its material needs satisfied, and the more households, the more material . . .) here comes to the fore as Dr. Crusher is allowed to have her son on board the Enterprise. Family takes preeminence over science, entertainment over exploration. The extent to which these themes are dominant in TNG is debatable, but there is no doubt that in TNG the high-flung idealism of the past is gone.

In a way, the Federation in TNG and its spinoffs itself becomes a corporate enterprise. TNG's universe looks much more like a diverse marketplace, with its lack of a single monolithic enemy. The Cardassians, the Borg (representing the threat of jobs lost to mechanization, no doubt), and eventually the Klingons (again) are all competing for their little patches of sky, for their little niche in a highly competitive market.

We see this idea reified in the Ferengi. As we move more and more to an America reliant on Big Business to run our lives, as we become more and more entangled in the stock market through mutual funds, 401(k)s and online investing, we become more and more directly in touch with our acquisitive nature. Doing well is less a notion of craftsmanship or advancement within a specific field and more about how much money one can earn, how easily an idea can be turned into a .com IPO. The Ferengi represent our ambivalent feelings about this side of ourselves.

The Ferengi are largely hated on TNG and its spinoffs (Bernardi 174), but they are tolerated. They are tolerated in the same way Microsoft is tolerated, in the same way that AOL is tolerated. We realize that the Ferengi must exist, that our avarice is what drives us as a nation, as a world. But it is ugly as the Ferengi are ugly, all bulbous noses and huge ears. Our avarice is small and insipid in most of us, worming its way into all that we think and manage to do, showing up at the worst possible moment. It even influences our notions of sexuality, as the Ferengi's love of human women--as many women as they can get--attests. The neo-conservatism of recent years has also managed to re-establish women as commodity, women as sex object, as saleable product. No product line (not even long-distance service providers, as the Sprint girl shows) goes on sale without its spokesmodel, no supermodel works for less than five figures a shoot. The Ferengi are us as we know and hate ourselves to be.

As the Ferengi's 202nd rule of acquisition shows, "the justification for profit is profit" (Bernardi 8). It is the raison d'etre of late 20th Century America. It is the reason that a liberal power base tolerates the Microsofts of the world: tolerance of them is necessary for the fiduciary health of the nation. TNG and its spinoffs are driven by Clintonian Capitalism: the reluctant embrace of free trade by a left-wing intent on keeping power by focusing on "the economy, stupid." TNG is the retention of Allen Greenspan for the soul purpose of riding a wave of prosperity.

And so we've come from the heady idealism of a Marxist utopia in Star Trek, to the Clintonian sellout in The Next Generation. The curve of the future, it would seem, is set.

Works Cited
Bernardi, Daniel. Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future. New Brunswick:Rutgers, 1998.

Projansky, Sarah. "When the Body Speaks: Deanna Troi's Tenuous Authority and the Rationalization of Federation Superiority In Star Trek: The Next Generation Rape Narratives." Enterprise Zones: Critical Positions on Star Trek. Taylor Harrison, et al. eds. Boulder: Westview, 1996. 33-50.
[Article originally posted at Postmodern Villager - Reproduced with author's permission]