Trek and the Great Utopian Sellout
by E.W. Wilder
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
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.
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.