Star Trek Socialism

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 16:00

As a followup and counterpoint to my diary last weekend, Republican Socialists of America, I'm republishing a diary I wrote back in 2005.  As you can see, the "extreme" positions I sometimes seem to take on these pages are barely scratching the surface.

In the finale of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation [TNG], "The Neutral Zone," Enterprise discovers a 20th century Earth craft with three frozen humans still alive in it. One of them is a super-wealthy businessman whose entire life was built around money making. He is eager to find out what's happened to his investments in the intervening centuries.  What's happened is that the human race has evolved out of capitalism. There is no more money, which leaves the businessman bereft of a sense of purpose.

In the next Star Trek series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, one of the continuing thematic concerns is the relationship between the socialist Federation and the ruthlessly capitalist (and patriarchal) Ferengi. In the end, the Ferengi undergo a dramatic transformation into a welfare state.   The conclusion is inescapable: along with all its other left-liberal sentiments, Star Trek is solidly socialist. I'm proud to call myself a Star Trek socialist, and I'll explain more on the flip.  

Paul Rosenberg :: Star Trek Socialism
Star Trek socialism is related to "Utopian Socialism", a term usually limited to thinkers before the mid-19th Century.  Wikipedia says:

Utopian Socialism is a term used to define the first currents of modern Socialist thought. Utopian socialists never actually used this name to describe themselves; the term "utopian socialism" was introduced by Karl Marx and used by later socialist thinkers, to describe early socialist or quasi-socialist intellectuals who created hypothetical visions of perfect egalitarian and communalist societies without actually concerning themselves with the manner in which these societies could be created or sustained....

Although it is technically possible for any person living at any time in history to be a utopian socialist, the term is most often applied to those utopian socialists who lived in the first quarter of the 19th century. From the mid-19th century onwards, the other branches of socialism far surpassed the utopian version in terms of intellectual development and number of supporters. Utopian Socialists were important in the formation of modern movements for intentional community and cooperatives, such as Open Source and Techno Communism.

The term "scientific socialism" is sometimes used by Marxists to describe their version of socialism, specifically for the purpose of counterposing it to Utopian Socialism which was descriptive and idealistic (in a sense of representing an ideal) rather than scientific, i.e., developed by means of reasoning and based on social sciences....

Utopian Socialism in Modern Culture

Heaven is often described as something similar to a socialist utopia, but the most familiar utopian socialist society would be that of the United Federation of Planets in the popular television series Star Trek - particularly that depicted in The Next Generation. There is no money, no want, no poverty, no crime, no disease or ignorance in human society; everyone works for the advancement of all humanity--as well as the rest of the Federation.

So, what, specifically, do I mean by "Star Trek socialism"?


I mean nothing specific.

I mean it as an invitation to imagine, not as a definition to impose.

Such is the nature of utopia--it is, above all, an exercise of the imagination, which is a core part of what makes us human.  By using the term "Star Trek socialism" I want to indicate and help re-establish an alternative viewpoint that is not just valuable in itself, but also for the sorts of discussions it can generate.  The viewpoint is that which we can see embodied in the United Federation of Planets, and how we can imagine ways to "Make it so," as Captain Picard would say.

The connection to pre-Marxist socialism is important for at least two major reasons. First is the demonization associated with anything Marxist.  While I don't want to endorse that demonization, neither do I want to expend a lot of energy defending a development that I think was deeply flawed.  This is the second major reason.  Marx called his approach "scientific socialism," but his model of science was 19th Century positivism--the same model that underlies neo-classical economics, and its modern (and post-modern) undead progeny that run rampant about us today.

What's wrong with positivism?  Well, this can be answered on two levels. On the surface, it strongly tends to produce notions of deterministic laws.  Whether it's Marx's dialectic progress through class struggle, or neo-classic price theory, positivism has a strong tendency to delude economic thinkers into the fantasy that they are 19th Century physicists in a pre-Einstein, pre-Heisenberg, totally deterministic world, which can all be explained with a few short equations.

More fundamentally, positivism elevates talk about facts over everything else--including theory, but especially criticism. It is based on the deep philosophical illusion that we are as Gods, who can, to some extent, simply stand outside of nature and know it as a downward-looking God would do. Richard Rorty did a masterful critique of this tradtition 24 years ago in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

The reality is that we are embedded in nature, part of an intricate system of feedback mechanisms. Our ability to know things is conditioned by our evolutionary history and the biological conditioning this has produced.  The first philosophy to fully recognize this was William James, the founder of pragmatism, which is the great alternative philosophy of science, the cybernetic alternative to positivism's top-down view.  (Lakoff, too, is part of the Jamesian tradition, as can be seen in detail in Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, co-authored with Mark Johnson.)

A pragmatist, rather than a positivist view of economics allows us to see "economic laws" as theoretical tools, useful for certain purposes, for others, not so much.  It also allows us to view economics as a totality in the same light.  

Economics--be it Marxist, neo-classical, or whatever--has a powerful tendency to try to explain everything.  But all our human economies are embedded in human culture, which in turn is embedded in our environment, as well as our evolutionary history. Any sensible politics must be informed from a variety of perspectives. It's not an either/or question of people or trees, economics or ecology.  It's a question of how to balance both--and various other perspectives as well.

What has all this to do with Star Trek socialism?  Simple: we've learned an awful lot in the past 200 years or so, but we can still gain something by returning to utopian socialism, which saw one fundamental fact--human want and deprivation is not a product of nature, but of human social relations.  Therefore, it can be eliminated by intentional human action.

Technological progress is promising, simply because any middle-class teenager today has better transportation than king or emperor who lived before 1900.  Technological progress underscores the extent to which our world is our collective social creation.  How we share that creation is, at its core, a moral question.  Economics is primarily about how we implement whatever moral vision we may choose.  Star Trek socialism is a moral vision of universe that works for everyone. Or, as Wikipedia put it:

There is no money, no want, no poverty, no crime, no disease or ignorance in human society; everyone works for the advancement of all humanity--as well as the rest of the Federation.

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Star Trek Socialism | 22 comments
Movie (0.00 / 0)
Earlier today it crossed my mind that Obama's victory is good news for the Star Trek movie coming out next summer. Star Trek is optimistic about the future, and its themes had trouble surviving (on TV) during the Bush years. Perhaps this will bring trek back to TV, which I'd love to see.

Actually (0.00 / 0)
Enterprise was a very interesting, not necessarily so optimistic series, dealing as it did with the early transitional period, with some pretty drastic ups and downs.  I was sad to see it cut short.  While TNG was a definitely a really fun series, I always much prefered DS9, which is much much richer as a story, and Enterprise had echoes of that.

But, basically, I agree with you.  After all, you know it's going to turn out in the end.  What really could have worked--despite the fore-ordained happy ending--would have been a series streching from a decade before the Bell Riots just up to First Contact.  It could have been somewhat akin to Battlestar Gallactica.  That would have been very cool.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Ah, screw that (0.00 / 0)
I want to see the final three chapters of Star Wars. Bring Luke, Leia & Han back in their golden years! What's the evil emperor up to from the dark beyond?

The parallels to the current situation are obvious, I think, however comic book-like. What we just saw was like the conclusion of SW6. But what happens AFTER?

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
Agreed (4.00 / 2)
DS9 had the greatest character development.  TNG was always a little too..perfect for me.  

This is a very interesting premise Paul, thanks for the fun Sunday read.

[ Parent ]
It Also Had the Best Actors (4.00 / 2)
I know that Patrick Stewart was Royal Shakespear Company and all, but for my money the only truly great actor on TNG was Michelle Forbes.  The biggest disappointment about DSN is that she didn't take the role they conceived for her.  Nana Visitor was wonderful and lots of fun... but not great.

Michael Dorn and Colm Meany were pretty much the best TNG had to offer--aside from Brent Spiner, of course, and they both did better work on DS9.  Avery Brooks was better than Stewart, IMHO, as he called less attention to himself.

But it was really the "minor" characters who just really elevated DS9, and the Ferengis were consistently great.  I'm an old, old fan of Wally Shawn, and I just loved him as the Grand Nagus.  He was clearly having the time of his life.  The Cardassians were great, too.  It was the top-notch casting of people who could really inhabit these conflict-generating "others" giving them a fully realized interior life that did so much to elevate the whole.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Avery Brooks was incredible (0.00 / 0)
I think his performance as Sisko was wonderful.  Do you remember the episode where he hallucinates and is a writer in the 1950's dealing with racism?  

Alex Siddiq was enjoyable as Doctor Bashir as well, a very layered character.

It really was a great series.  I always hoped for a movie (where Sisko comes back) but no dice there.

[ Parent ]
Yes, That Was A REALLY Good One--Almost Like A Phillip K. Dick Story (0.00 / 0)
"Far Beyond The Stars.  It was one helluva episode.  All the different characters transposed into a 1950s pulp scifi milieu.  Sisko's experience could easily come off as cheap gimmick, but they made it such a fully realized world unto itself, every character had something distinctive going on with them.  It was typical of everything that made the whole series so exceptional.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
No wonder the Ferengi always looked so sickly (4.00 / 2)
They surely had an awful health insurance system!

Heh, speaking of health insurance, today on MTP during a discussion of it, endangered Repub senator Mel Martinez claimed that because SCHIP was so "divisive" in the 110th congress, Dems & Obama should not try to pass it, and instead should focus on the economy (as if the two were utterly unrelated). I.e. let children suffer, while bailing out zillionare Wall St. crooks. Typical GOP recipe for electoral success.

Dem James Clyburn was sharp enough to respond that there was nothing divisive about SCHIP, that congress passed it, and that it only failed to become law because Bush vetoed it, and that that hardly made it "divisive". Again, typical GOP "thinking". If the (GOP) president is against something, it is, by definition, too "divisive" to persue. (And when the president is a Dem, divisive means a small and radical segment of the GOP and its base being against it.)

Dems need to take back ownership of the narrative. If they can do they, they will be halfway there.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

Some quibbles (4.00 / 1)
This is a very interesting post and I agree that Star Trek in essence posits a socialist future. It does so based on the development of technology. In essence, the world of Star Trek (warp engines, replicators, etc.) creates a world that is so energy efficient the problem of scarcity is effectively overcome. Even so, there is a lot about the political economy of Star Trek that is never specified. Still, I give you points for imagination.

Here are my objections;

1. I don't think Marx was a positivist in the 19th century use of the term. In fact, he was anti-positivist;

2. Positivism in the 20th century underwent a shift, so early 20th century positivism is logical positivism rather than Comtean positivism;

3. Mainstream, or Neo-Classical economics is not positivist either in its logical positivist or 19th century Comptean positivist sense of the term. It borrows some concepts from Positivism (e.g the fact-value dichotomy) but Positivists generally believed that theories needed to be true in a restrictive sense of the term. Mainstream economics has tended to be a a priori and axiomatic (the opposite of positivism) or constructive empiricist (models are just tools for explaining reality and are themselves neither true nor false);

4. Rorty is not a Pragmatist. He has kidnapped the term. He has vulgarized and distorted Dewey beyond all recognition.

If you would like to read what real Pragmatism is about and why Rorty is not one, read Susan Haack's introduction to her anthology of Pragmatism, Old and New and then read her chapter on the Social Sciences in Defending Science Within Reason.

The Trouble With Quibles (0.00 / 0)
(Don't mind the subject line, I'm a sucker for language games, even the most trivial.  I really appreciate your comment.)

(1) It's often the case that people are consciously opposed to something close up, but when seen from afar they share implicit assumptions that are strikingly obvious to us, even though invisible to them.  Such is the case here, I would argue.  Marx's scientism reflects a positivist ethos that any late-20th century teenager with a decent education could spot a mile off, even before going to college.

(2) "A rose is a rose is a rose." [positivism->rose]  Again, the difference may seem mighty from close up, but compared to pragmatism, they're still just peas in a pod.  Or pods in a pod-person, more like.  Whatever.

(3) You are literally quite correct.  The neo-classicists were deeply self-deluded.  But it was what they thought they were doing, as reflected in much of the rhetoric used to defend them.  For example, the declining marginal utility of money or wealth for those who are rich is intuitively obvious to anyone not indocrtinated.  But raise this with a neo-classically trained economist--or a propagandist thereof--and one will hear stern lectures about an untestable hypothesis, which is, therefore, essentially meaningless.

(4) I haven't read much of Rorty's later work, so I can't speak to the general argument--though I thank you for the references.  However, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature most definitely was pragmatist in its approach.

Exit question: Is there anything by Haack available on the web that could give me the flavor of her arguments?


"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Elysian Fields (4.00 / 2)
The problem with Star Trek, is that it's a lot like heaven -- it leaves us all dressed up with no place to go. Do you remember this quote, from the introduction to Marcuse's One Dimensional Man?

Social theory is concerned with the historical alternatives which haunt the established society as subversive tendencies and forces. The values attached to the alternatives do become facts when they are translated into reality by historical practice. The theoretical concepts terminate with social change.

I won't live to see the end of the dialectic, and of history, and frankly, I hope no one does. I've spent most of my life haunting the established society, and for better or for worse, it's hard for me to imagine any other state of being. I get restless when someone tries to put a harp in my hands.

[ Parent ]
Here is one link (0.00 / 0)

This is an essay of hers on Science and the Law. Though it is more oriented towards law and less towards social theory per se, I think it will give a pretty good flavor of where she goes. This particular essay formed the basis of a chapter of the same title in Defending Science Within Reason.

She has an extensive critique of Rorty in Evidence and Inquiry, Chapter 9.

A short google search of Susan Haack will turn up multiple entries and of course, there is always the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia.

I'm not sure what neo-classical economists you are talking about. The declining marginal utilty of income (or wealth) is one of the fundamental axioms of revealed preference theory.

Of course part of the problem is defining "neo-classical". The term is broad enough to include Paul Krugman, Robert Reich and Joe Stiglitz on the left and Milton Friedman, Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan on the right (though Greenspan was at one point in time a Neo-Austrian).

If you read Mark Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect I think you will see how deeply embedded late 20th century empiricism-as opposed to logical positivism is in mainstream economics. Paul Samuelson, also, was pretty clear about his methodology being that of constructive empiricism (though he didn't call it that).

The real conservatives (i.e. the Austrians) explicitly state their theories are "non-falsifiable".

[ Parent ]
btw (0.00 / 0)
The Trouble with Tribbles is one of the all time great episodes.

[ Parent ]
Two Problems Collide Here (0.00 / 0)
One is that I haven't been engaged with this material in some time.  The other is that people may argue different things in different contexts/

Perhaps the most salient area of argument that I looked into--roughly 30 years ago--was Sraffa's Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, and I distinctly recall a passage somewhere in which Samuelson resorted to calling the neoclassical account that Sraffa was attacking a "fairy tale"--but not with any intent of abandoning it.  (Putting him, at least in this instance, in the same boat as the Austrians.)

I'm sure that wasn't in any sort of scholarly paper, though I can't recall the context--probably a lecture or discussion.  At any rate, it seemed to indicate an admission that all was not as it might appear if one only read the journals.

Now, it happens that I was doing some nonlinear math at the time, and I was keenly aware of the limits of equilibrium models.  It basically seemed self-evident to me that the whole 19th century mathematical framework that neoclassicism was born out of was hopelessly inadequate  But explaining this to a non-mathematician was not at all an easy task--as I confirmed by making the attempt on more than one occassion.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Right (0.00 / 0)
The mainstream (Neo-Classical) growth models of the 1960's and 1970's employed assumptions that critics like Sraffa and Joan Robinson and others said were not true. The primary debate was over a technical point-the shape of mathematical functions that related levels of output to inputs. Mainstream production theory models production as having a near infinite combination of inputs to produce the same level of output. Sraffians said that in reality there was often a very limited number, and in many cases, only one way to produce a given amount of output.

The discussion was very long, very technical, and shed more heat than light. But by the time it was over Samuelson effectively conceded that his concept of capital and production was inconsistent, though he charged that the Sraffians were not able to provide an instance of empirical disconfirmation of his theory or an instance of empirical confirmation of their own theory.

What Samuelson and Solow argued was that their models were not true and were not designed to be true. Instead, they treated their models as parables, or in other words, explanatory devices that could account for stylized facts about economic growth.

In other words, mainstream economists such as Samuelson and Solow viewed models not as true theories, but as heuristic devices. As I said, they were constructive empiricists and Samuelson's well known characterization of mainstream models as fairy tales is a clear acknowledgement of this.

In Economic Theory in Retrospect, Mark Blaug readily acknowledges that mainstream theory has multiple empirical anomalies and often resorts to ad hoc explanations. He defends it as being better than the alternatives.

This position is many things, but it is not the logical positivism of the early 20th century or the positivism of Comte of the 19th century.

While there are many, many, many things to criticize positivism for it had two chief virtues: it was actually concerned with truth and tried to rest claims to truth on a rigorous theory of induction.

Positivism also rests on a view of the word that "what you see is essentially what you get". Marx in contrast held that there were "deep structures" (not Marx's term) that were not directly knowable but were nonetheless fundamental reality.

[ Parent ]
Right--What They Are Is Pragmatists (0.00 / 0)
The use of hueristic models is perfectly consistent with Jamesian pragmatism, not positivism.  But pragatism does not support the pseudo-certainty routinely promoted in the policy realm, in the name of econometric approaches.  And I think that Marxism, too, has some huersitic value--which also does not support psuedo-ceertainty in the policy realm.

My big picture arguement would be that both Hegel and Comte reflected a similarly misplaced faith in methodological certainty.  When Marx 'stood Hegel on his head' he both maintained the deep structure approach you refer to, but moved toward an implicit elective affinity, at the very least, with Comte.

All this derived from early 19th-Century thought that was still, I would argue, deeply influenced by reacting against/emulating religious models of certainty. In contrast, pragmatism emerged from late 19th-Century scientific practice.  It was a truly realistic appraisal of how science worked, based, as you put it, on a view that "what you see is essentially what you get".

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Can you explain a bit more? (0.00 / 0)
If you would like to read what real Pragmatism is about and why Rorty is not one, read Susan Haack's introduction to her anthology of Pragmatism, Old and New and then read her chapter on the Social Sciences in Defending Science Within Reason.

I don't know a heck of a lot about Rorty having only read Philosophy as Cultural Politics but it hardly seemed to me that this was a "vulgarization" of Dewey.

Rorty's certainly more romantic and cheeky, sure, but who says you can't have some fun along the way?

Me | My Work | Future Majority

[ Parent ]
It's not about having or not having fun (0.00 / 0)
Personally, I find Susan to be incredibly entertaining and witty. But then again, some might accuse me of being a nerd.

It's about an attitude towards truth and the goal of inquiry. Rorty conflates the meaning of the term "Pragmatism" with what is immediately expedient and useful. Truth for Rorty, is whatever you can defend against all comers.

Dewey's concept of "Pragmatic" was that our concept of the desired must be rooted in the desirable-something we come to know through experience over the long haul. Dewey makes the argument that we can establish warrant of belief through reason and experience. Rorty never really comes clean about what allows us to have warrant of belief.

[ Parent ]
Interesting (0.00 / 0)
Rorty never really comes clean about what allows us to have warrant of belief.

It's certainly more muddled, but I think if you look at Pragmatism as a Romantic Polytheism (my take here), you begin to pick up a lot of hints.

"Whatever you can defend against all comers" could be seen as a sort of terse/brass-tacks summary of what emerges from a zesty intersubjective inquiry over time.  

Me | My Work | Future Majority

[ Parent ]
Love the concept (4.00 / 1)
I dig where you're going with this in concept, Paul -- exploring the possible and figuring out where to aim are both risible endeavors -- but from a branding or persuasion perspective prefixing anything with "Star Trek" is a great way to marginalize whatever follows.

Just sayin'.

Me | My Work | Future Majority

Wait A Second, Aren't You The Guy That Just Said (4.00 / 1)
Rorty's certainly more romantic and cheeky, sure, but who says you can't have some fun along the way?

Just sayin'.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Star Trek Socialism | 22 comments

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