Reading Between the Lines of Star Trek TNG’s Utopianism

[A dialogue with Josh Marsfelder of Vaka Rangi blog, based on a Twitter exchange. My comments are in bold.]

The Federation’s attitude towards treaty obligations in Ensigns of Command, The Vengeance Factor and The Hunted seems to value an interstellar equivalent of the Westphalian nation-state for its own sake. Put that together with the Prime Directive, and the central value of the Federation seems to be stasis. Reminds me a lot of George Bush standing by & letting Saddam suppress the Shia/”Marsh Arab” uprising in Iraq after the war.
Yeah, that sounds about right to me. Do bear in mind where the Enterprise crew’s values stood in relation to that though. And also how Captain Picard’s description of life in the 24th Century in “The Neutral Zone” seems to contradict that. Or, for that matter, the sheer number of times the crew have been put up against Starfleet Command/Federation administration. Once you get to TNG Mark II and DS9, you’ll see how the war with Cardassia might have given the Feds a reason to act that way. A four year war about petty border disputes where entire planetary populations were used as bargaining chips by both sides.
Compare that to [Iain Banks’s] The Culture’s ethos of benign uplift and liberation, to give purpose to their seemingly purposeless abundance. (See also the Rediscovery of Man as the Instrumentality’s response to the same problem in the work of Cordwainer Smith.) This issue of the source of motivation/purpose in a post-scarcity society, and in some cases how it dovetails with foreign relations, seems like a good theme to examine.
Especially paying close attention to what Captain Picard and his crew are motivated by and how that contrasts with what motivates their superiors. There’s a comic miniseries I looked at between seasons 3 and 4 you may or may not be interested in. It was all about what differentiates the Enterprise crew from Starfleet and how they are seen by outside viewers.

If the Federation’s growing authoritarianism is a reflection of the new foreign threats it encounters outside Alpha Quadrant, it might mean the Enterprise is a surviving cluster of values that were once genuinely those of the Federation.
I’m inclined to believe the Federation was always authoritarian, they just disguised themselves with pretty rhetoric. Just look at anything Gene Coon wrote, or how D.C. Fontana and Larry Niven equated them with the Earth that faught the Kzin Wars. Captain Picard and his crew genuinely embody the ideals the Federation only pretends are theirs. That’s why the Enterprise crew spooks Starfleet Command so much, and why they try to rub them out. All coming to a head, as a matter of fact, in that comic series I talked about. We also see a rhetorical echo of these themes in what I refer to as the premier of TNG Mark II: “The Wounded.”
I mean let me put it another way: We’re saying a big keystone of Star Trek’s post-scarcity is the replicator, yes? Well, whoever said replicators were Federation technology? IIRC pretty much everyone we meet has them. The post-scarcity economy extends to the entire Star Trek universe, not just the Federation. (Well, everyone except the Ferengi and the Yridians, but they’re weird.)

[Note: The Cardassians are also an ambiguous case, if we’re to attach any importance to the stories of childhood deprivation from Picard’s torturer in “Chain of Command, Part II.” Either the adoption of replicator technology is fairly recent, within the framework of the military dictatorship, and the state imposes a regime of artificial scarcity with itself as gatekeeper to the abundance provided by replicator tech, or the military dictatorship presented itself as a savior that delivered the population from a scarcity that was artificial in the first place.]

And if the replicators were invented independently within the Federation, the post-scarcity civilization might have spontaneously sprung up on its own initiative within the Federation, with the latter attempting to parasitize on it and coopt it with a progressive-sounding, New Agey official ideology.
That definitely sounds to me like something the Federation, with its US-esque socioeconomic neo-colonialism, would do. “Freedom, democracy and post-scarcity”. They really are the Borg, aren’t they?

Based on what I can reconstruct of Federation history from what I’ve seen, it’s hard to tell where Earth ends and the Federation begins. A lot of important shit is headquartered on Earth, an awful lot of capital ships have names reminiscent of Anglo-American (or Imperial Japanese) naval history, and crews are disproportionately human [Note: in “Best of Both Worlds, Part II” Earth’s solar system is Sector 001].
Yeah, that’s definitely a thing…. As for the history of the Federation, the TV show Enterprise tries to look at it a bit, especially in its last season. But it’s frustratingly a largely wasted opportunity, as the show by that point had devolved to self-indulgent fanwank. If I recall correctly the (real) finale, “Terra Prime”, does actually address some of these concerns. The titular Terra Prime is a Terran Fundamentalist movement opposed to any human interaction w/extraterrestrial life. Can’t remember offhand what their stance on the Federation was though. Like, if they opposed it on principle or just wanted it to be an Earth-based empire. HOWEVER, just before that Enterprise did a story looking at the origins of the Terran Empire in the Mirror Universe.

Thanks to you I’m thinking more in terms of the post-scarcity society emerging within the larger power-driven framework of the Federation, being coopted by that framework (a la netarchical capitalism) w/ its phony post-scarcity ideology and the Enterprise being the node around which genuine post-scarcity begins to crystallize or undergo phase transition with the post-scarcity society (to borrow Marx’s phrase) eventually bursting out of its Federation integument.

[Postscript 5/4/18: See this critique of Black Panther for some similar themes]


5 thoughts on “Reading Between the Lines of Star Trek TNG’s Utopianism

  1. David Claughton

    One thing to consider that might hold back the adoption of replicator tech is the fact that these devices would almost certainly require prodigious amounts of energy to operate – E = Mc-squared and all that … you ain’t gonna be using solar panels to power one of these!

    One might assume that the only suitable power source for such a device would be matter-antimatter reactions. Since in TOS times the use of antimatter was considered to be expensive and inefficient and a necessary evil used only for powering warp engines, it might well be that the the knowledge to create a replicator existing a long time before it became economical to operate one at all, let alone before the conditions existed to make its use cost so little that it could usher in post-scarcity.

    It’s also interesting to imagine the changes that might conceivably happen around energy infrastructure in order to support replicator tech and the socio-political implications that might have…

  2. freemarketanticapitalist Post author

    I’m guessing that large quantities of energy would be available at relatively low unit cost in materials with large-scale fabrication capabilities for Dyson spheres, nano-scale photovoltaic layers &c, though.


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