The atmosphere at the Deep Thought blog has been a little solemn recently so I decided to lighten things up a bit by dragging out a debate I have been having for at least 25 years – is Star Trek escapist fantasy where the Federation (i.e., the heroes of the show) represents the US, or is it escapist fantasy where the Federation represents Communism?
I have been watching Star Trek since I was a wee lad and I remember standing in line to see Star Trek, the Motion Picture when it came out. My father hated the show and called it 'a crypto-communist fable'. I thought he was loony, but after I joined the army and The Next Generation came out, my fondness for the show began to wane. My first complaint was that the writers had no idea how real military forces work. Then I, too, began questioning the politics expressed by the characters. Finally, I stopped watching it altogether and want my own children to wait until they are at least 14 before they do so. Why? I think it is a not-so-subtle endorsement of Socialism, maybe Communism.
While there are a number of bits about this on the web, and in many ways it does seem rather silly, it is a question worth reviewing. Why? Well, Star Trek has had quite an impact on society. The Star Trek franchise has impacted the design of technology, the shows continue to have a large presence in video games, and over the course of the franchise it has earned a total of no less than $6 billion dollars worldwide. Catchphrases from Star Trek are still common in English today and the primary characters (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Picard) are global cultural icons.
That is a pretty big impact for a bunch of shows pitched as ‘Wagon Train in space’!
One of the first things to remember is, of course, that Star Trek is a show. It had many writers, and directors and it has continued long after the death of its creator. This means that there is some ambiguity. In some episodes (The Omega Glory) Kirk obviously fights for American democracy against Chinese Communist rule. Of course, that episode also shows surviving American descendents as howling barbarians attacking the more civilized Chinese Communists that had conquered the world. While there is some argument that in the original series the Klingons represented the Communists, the Klingons also were expanding their empire in order to dominate trade.
That, of course, brings us to a cornerstone of Communism. Yes, Communism is an ideology and yes, it is a political philosophy. But first and foremost Communism is an economic system. So let’s talk about money in Star Trek. First of all, we know that it exists outside the Federation. Quark from Deep Space Nine and the rest of the Ferengi are the obvious example of this; they buy and sell things, are obsessed with gaining wealth, and use precious metals as a medium of exchange. Other aliens use money and when dealing with them the Federation and people in Star Fleet sometimes use money or refer to accounts. So money is out there and the Federation uses it when dealing with ‘foreign’ cultures.
Interanlly, however, we are told repeatedly that there is no money within the Federation. There seems to be a limit on high-energy activities (like replicator or transporter use for private reasons), but everyone from Ferengis to Picard informs the viewer that members of the Federation do not have or use money and have not since the late 2100’s. Going even farther, Picard tells us quite clearly that members of the Federation do not even have possessions! In the same incident it becomes obvious that Picard, a well-read and highly-educated man with a strong background in diplomacy (we are told through various episodes) is puzzled by the very concept of financial investments. Instead, a number of characters tell us that people in the Federation work not to accumulate wealth or possessions but to ‘better themselves and humanity’. The few instances of purchases we do see within the Federation in the original series (and its related movies) are all… smuggling. So it seems that the use of money within the Federation did exist, at least in the ‘bad old days’ of Kirk and Scotty, but it was illegal.
Was this just various writers making Star Trek ‘exotic’? Almost certainly not. Ronald Moore, a writer and producer for the Star Trek franchise from the ‘80’s to the ‘00’s said that Roddenberry himself had insisted that the Federation did not have any money, credits – nothing like cash at all, ever. The Ferengi, an invention of Roddenberry, are a not-disguised-at-all mockery of Capitalists and portray businessmen and entrepreneurs as vicious, lying, stealing, cowardly barbarians without morals or scruples at all. The Ferengi/Capitalists are portrayed as Neaderthal-like misogynists Roddenberry originally envisioned the Ferengi as the main villains of Star Trek: The Next Generation to replace the Klingons from the original series, but the other writers and producers saw them as a laughable stereotype instead of a menace and changed them greatly.
So Roddenberry’s personal vision of the future was a world with no money, no possessions, and work was done for the good of mankind as much as for personal satisfaction. That sounds like a fantasy Communisy/Socialist utopia to me. Writers at the Socialist Review agree, lamenting only that Star Trek isn’t quite Socialist enough.
Star Trek also resembles Communism in its open hostility to religion. The religions of the aliens in Star Trek are almost all fakes, shams, or frauds. The Bajorans, Edo, Betans, Triangulans, worship mis-identified aliens, machines, or alien machines. Closer to home, the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Mayans, and Incans also worshipped aliens. Star Trek writer David Gerrold once explained that the Roddenberry would “When in doubt, have Kirk fight God!”. It is clearly stated a few times that rational races leave religion behind, that people and races capable of critical thought are atheists. In at least one case in Star Trek religion was genetically engineered into a race to allow total control by alien masters, preventing the religious from ‘freeing’ themselves from their ‘slavery’. While some people point to the episode ‘Bread and Circuses’ and say that it has a positive treatment of Christianity, I must disagree – although there is an oblique reference to Christ, He is portrayed as just another historical parallel, no different than a bland copy of a Roman emperor, and the Christian Church has had no true influence on this alien world in the 1,950+ years since His (presumed) life, death, and rebirth. This episode paints Jesus as just another historical episode and nothing more.
Roddenberry was an active and outspoken atheist, as is the head writer for the franchise since Roddenberry’s death, Brannon Braga. We should be surprised that the shows were not/are not much more obviously anti-religion. In the end, we see no Christians, no Mormons, and no Zoroastrians. Starfleet has no chaplains, the only Federation chapel we see is a Spartan, non-denominational affair. Although Nazis are seen in a few episodes, there are no Jews. Those few religious people we see are aliens, at best practicing their ‘quaint’, cultural worship of mythological beings seen as socially constructive fiction, but usually believers are shown as the mindless and/or violent pawns of supercomputers or aliens. Despite the careful inclusion of people obviously Russian, Scottish, African, Irish, etc., we never see someone cross themselves, carrying a prayer rug, or saying ‘Oy vey!’ While Chakotay on Voyager was ostensibly a Native American and followed traditional religious practices, in reality what was shown on screen was a mish-mash of various Native American rituals and beliefs with more in common with New Age practices than actual religion.
Roddenberry was a staunch progressive and firmly believed that the history of mankind in one of marching from a dark, unenlightened past toward a brighter, more enlightened future. Of course, this meant that the future he envisioned looked as he felt it should. It did not take long for the high ideals of the Federation to dissolve into moral relativism. The Prime Directive leads the Federation to sometimes ignore the destruction of an inhabited planet, dooming its billions of people to death unless they could be kept ignorant of space travel. This is supposedly to protect other civilizations from the Federation and to prevent the Federation from being too involved in other cultures. Of course, this ignores that fact that there is a standing order for procedures on destroying all life on an inhabited world merely for being a threat to the Federation! On the other hand, Federation officers had no problems with erasing the memories of others, or to radically change societies that they simply did not like all that much, including primitive societies fighting enemies of the Federation, societies with treaties the officer in question didn’t like, and, of course, religious societies. Picard, the captain that initially refused to save the inhabitants of an entire planet rather than violate the Prime Directive had earlier broken that same law to save a single member of his own crew. Kirk will sometimes risk his ship to save others, sometimes will violate treaties and plunge a system into interplanetary war because he doesn’t like their version of peace. All in all, Star Trek is a sea of moral relativism. Things are bad because the writers say so; things are good because the writers say so. The good things are almost invariably Liberal Socialist ideas, the bad things are almost always Conservative or Capitalist things.
There are other little things that point to a Socialist utopia as the heart of Star Trek. All space vehicles within the Federation are Federation (i.e., government-owned) vessels. Federation citizens can be (and are) punished for violating Federation law when they are outside the Federation and its jurisdiction. There is ample evidence that all communications are controlled by the Federation and that only high-ranking Star Fleet officers have access to encrypted communications. You never see independent journalists. The only corporations mentioned are beyond the Federation’s borders, and we never, ever see a brand name, logo, or corporate emblem. Scientific achievements are either ‘for the good of humanity’ (i.e., no patents or fees) or criminal (in other words, getting something for your research other than praise is illegal and/or immoral in the Federation). Star Fleet has tremendous power and influence, including being easily capable of a bloodless coup, controlling all shown research, exploration, and colonization. And being able to try civilians for breaking the law.
So, in the end, the United Federation of Planets (the Federation) looks like a highly-militarized society with central control of research, development, exploration, colonization, manufacture, and communications. Federation citizens do not earn pay, have investments, run their own businesses, or have any personal possessions beyond a few mementos – they certainly have no money. Religions beyond a vague spirituality expressed by very few people, Federation citizens are, at most, agnostic and are generally atheist. Although there seems to be an elected parliamentary body, virtually all local and regional decisions are made by Star Fleet and the majority of Federation-wide laws seems to be Star Fleet directives. Individual ship commanders in Star Fleet have the ability to either abandon non-Federation races to whatever fate they may face if they are ‘too primitive’ to be worthy of help. Conversely, these same ship captains my unilaterally decide to exterminate all life on a planet if it is deemed dangerous to the Federation. All with no appeal to any elected, or even civilian, person or body. Yet the society is portrayed as happy, even perfect, to such an extent that a mere 15-30 minutes of discussion was enough to convince Samuel Clemens, one of the most hard-bitten cynics in history, that it was a worthy aspiration for all of mankind.
In my opinion, the underpinning of Star Trek is a Socialist utopia, a vision of the world that Gene Roddenberry thought would be the pinnacle of human achievement. Roddenberry was open about his hopes that Star Trek would influence people toward favoring what he favored, so I also believe that these Communist fantasies were stated purposefully to convince the viewers that Roddenberry (and later writers) were right. What should we do about this? That’s easy – ignore them. There is so much top-notch science fiction out now that we can vote with our feet for things that we enjoy that we don’t find offensive.
Note: More Star Trek 'Motivational' posters can be found here.