Friday 7 October 2011

Enterprise & Initiative

Star Trek is liberal bourgeois to the bone.

Show me more of this Earth thing called "shopping" 

The Federation is supposedly post-capitalist, post-money, etc., yet it has many of the important hallmarks of advanced capitalist social organisation. A highly organised and stratified division of labour, a deep separation between workplace and home life, work shifts, career promotion, private nuclear families, a socially-separate education system providing training and qualifications, a professional liberal media, massive military expenditure (of resources if not money), hierarchical political and military arrangements combined with liberal ideology, a separate political class, etc. In one of the films, someone even mentions "opinion polls".  So, the Federation clearly has what looks like a capitalist state, capitalist superstructure and capitalist social arrangements.  What of the economy?  Well, they still have privately owned and run restaurants, for example, though supposedly people run them for the love of it… and in DS9, the Federation people mesh perfectly into the economy of Bajor, with its Ferengi businessmen, etc… to the point where you have Federation officers trading goods and paying credits for booze. When they want to make a ‘darker’, grungier version of their utopia, they take characters from the utopia and cast them amongst the money-using barbarians on the frontiers. But the Utopians have little difficulty dealing with the money-users in a natural way, whatever their occasional disdain.  The facile nature of the pretence that the Federation is post-capitalist is revealed by the ease with which the Federation types merge into Quark’s bar. 

Meanwhile, capitalism is turned into a kind of quaint pathology, espoused as a blatant and impudent ethic of acquisition, by a race that it’d be easy to mistake for a bunch of submerged Jewish stereotypes (even down to ballbusting mothers). The utter misunderstanding of capitalism – indeed, of all human history – is best expressed in the scene where Quark, tired of being endlessly patronized and insulted by the holier-than-thou humans, compares his culture with the culture of Earth, pointing out that Ferengos (or whatever the silly place is called) has no history of things like concentration camps.  The implication is that humans must blame their own species-nature for the horrors of the 20th century... which fails to notice the role of competing capitalist imperialisms and fascist reaction (against socialist challenges to capitalism) in creating the wars that lead to concentration camps.  Capitalism itself is absolved, since it has been practiced by the Ferengi and lead to no comparable horrors, merely social eccentricities.  Even the sexism of Ferengi culture is seen as a mere cultural malformation, with DS9 repeatedly showing female Ferengis achieving liberation through their equal ability to participate in ruthless trade, etc., whenever they manage to trick or force the men into giving them a chance.  Capitalism is thus so entirely acquitted of any involvement in patriarchy that it is instead offered as a way of defeating it.  This is entirely consonant with the heavily peddled ideas that free markets will eventually result in populations of free individuals, that the liberty of trade is the liberty of people, that liberalisation of market economies brings liberalisation of societies, that personal self-promotion is the best way to overcome cultural disadvantages. 

This inherent strain of bourgeois liberal ideology running through Trek is the secret inner reason why consumption and exchange on the bourgeois economic model still work in a technological culture that can produce via things like replicators. The writers are forced to imagine that, in a few hundred years time, it’ll be possible to create technology that makes production as we know it obsolete… yet they are unable to imagine a genuine post-capitalist world. They are so aware of the contradiction that they have to hide all the money and make all the characters claim it no longer exists.  The result is that the Federation seems like a collection of people in denial.  One senses the money, the inequalities, the trade, the wage-slips, all off to one side, off camera.

The liberal writers of 90s Trek were able to dream of a Utopian liberal paradise yet unable to conceive of its nuts 'n' bolts functioning without bringing in overtones of capitalism. 

The Berman Ideology

The hero/protagonist characters behave like the ideal of how people should behave, conceptualised within an entirely bourgeois framework.  Hard work, dedication to career, specialisation and professionalism, separation of private time from work, love of the private nuclear family, considered obedience to the state, respect for private property, self-advancement, enlightened self-interest, etc.  And, when the crunch comes, the individual hero/captain conquers the baddies or embodies the moral lesson.  Trek is liberal bourgeois, of course, hence the emphasis on culturally progressive virtues like tolerance for other lifestyles, equality of opportunity for women and minorities, lack of racial prejudice, lack of emphasis on nationalism, a questioning attitude to authority (within circumscribed limits, i.e. following orders, the rule of law, duty) and so on.

Of course, whatever radical edge this may once have had in the 60s (female, Russian, black, Japanese officers... all treated as almost-equals by their white, male superiors - imagine!), has now almost entirely dissipated.  Profession of cultural liberalism (in most areas) is now considered baseline normal in the media and political cultures in almost all Western democracies, with only fringe hard-conservatisms challenging the (admittedly largely specious) dedication to women's rights, equality and tolerance.  These days, even the spittle-flecked denouncers of gay marriage have to either pretend it isn't an issue of discrimination or, in the US, invoke a supposedly disinterested obedience to Biblical literalism, framing their hatred as part of a struggle for the civil rights of Christian bigots, for their freedom to discriminate.

Indeed, in the discourse of modern Western capitalist democracies, such liberal tolerance is equated directly (implicitly or explicitly) with the supposedly liberating qualities of trade and commerce and capital flow.  Capitalism is the bedrock of prosperous modernity, in this view.  This is why culturalist liberalism is so obsessed, these days, with comparing modern, secular, liberal, tolerant Western democracy (i.e. "civilisation") to the putatively backward, medieval, intolerant, sexist, homophobic horror of Islam and the Arab countries.  90s Trek rejected the hardline version of this (i.e. the version that would find its ultimate expression in Hitchens, et al) but, nevertheless, it isn't hard to see this worldview embedded within the depiction of many of the alien races that attacked Picard, Sisko and Janeway. 

In this way, Trek - especially 90s Trek - expresses a deep ambivalence towards capitalism in 20th century liberalism; an ambivalence that - as an integral part of liberalism - is itself entirely bourgeois.  On the one hand, it'd be nice to do away with money and all the grubby business that goes with it... and, of course, the past contains much evidence of distressing things like discrimination (it's always in the past)...  On the other hand, capitalism is - so the thinking runs - obviously the best (or, in the soft version, the least bad) economic system that we, as a species, can devise.

In Trek, the Utopian strain in liberalism (and I'm not the sort of person who axiomatically uses the word 'utopian' as an insult) is represented by the attempt to portray a post-capitalist future in which people co-operate socially and strive for betterment without material gain as an incentive.  The deeply ingrained strain of reactionary pessimism in liberalism is unable to imagine any such future, so Trek simply presents an idealised version of our own bourgeois epoch but with the money edited out of the picture.  Also, Capitalism the Deliverer must be absolved of its crimes by 'facing up to' the cultural defects of the past (sexism, racism, etc.) so that we may choose to leave them behind as we sail onwards to the happy free-market millennium.  What Fukuyama called 'the End of History'.  In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which topically retold the just-happened fall of communism with Klingons standing in for Russians, Kirk is given a line which repudiates this 'end of history', yet the world he lives in has, by this point, become a doggerel realisation of Fukuyama's vision.

So, the utopia is of a recognisably bourgeois nature.  It might postulate the end of war, poverty and discrimination as baseline requirements (impossible under capitalism, which relentlessly and systemically generates all these blights)... but it also draws its conception of the highest achievements possible for humanity from bourgeois ideas.  Discovery, exploration and migration are inextricably bound to self-advancement, self-realisation, status, achievement, the respect of intellectual superiors and the loyalty of lower ranks.

Meanwhile, the bourgeois mindset of the programme shows us meritocracy, representative democracy, social mobility – all those things that are supposed to be inherent boons of capitalism – functioning pretty much perfectly, almost all the time.  Poverty, nationalist xenophobia, racism, sexism, depression, addiction, alienation, rape, domestic violence - all of which are widespread blights upon advanced capitalist cultures in the real world - are things of the past in Trekworld.

In the Roddenberry/Berman joyous future, humanity has supposedly left such things behind, apparently as an act of pure will (remind me why its always us Marxists who are accused of having unrealistic expectations of human nature?).  Those judgemental enough to accuse humans of having changed very little - like Q, for instance - are roundly defeated in debate by Picard and his band of enlightened, bourgeois, democratic, humanitarian militarists.

When, occasionally, the Federation utopia wobbles in its high-minded devotion to ethical, legal, beneficent expansion, along comes Kirk/Picard/Whoever to the rescue.  Thus Trek fulfills another duty of bourgeois ideology: the idolizing of individual heroism.

I, Captain

The Federation is thoroughly individualistic: that’s why the ultimate horror is when Picard gets made into a drone. And Trek’s championing of individualism is why Picard’s assimilation ultimately leads to the Federation victory. Yes, the rest of the main characters help… but they’re all, like Picard, individualists who have achieved their authority status through self-advancement within a meritocratic hierarchical command structure.  Data is on a quest for personhood through success in his career.  Worf seeks personal honour through success in his career.  Riker seeks success in his career through... well, through success in his career.

The episode where Picard gets assimilated even features a conflict between Riker and a thrusting, ambitious young, up-and-coming Starfleet hotshot who wants his job.  We’re allowed to be appalled by her outright ruthlessness about trying to cut-in in front of him… yet they end the story as the best of friends, with her ultimately judged as an excellent, effective officer who’s just been a bit overly-attitudey.  Liberal bourgeois ideology has rarely been so perfectly expressed in sci-fi form.

There are different kinds of individualism. There’s MacMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – irrepressibly himself, resisting authority and control and repression at every stage because he can’t help himself. The little guy, battling the Big Nurse and the Combine.  There's Yossarian in Catch-22.  Such individualists in American fiction, whatever their context in the radical anti-establishment scepticism of the 60s and early 70s, probably trace their lineage back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who claimed that “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members”. 

There’s also the Captain. Kirk and Picard are classic bourgeois hero figures, though of different types.

Picard is the liberal bourgeois establishment hero, par excellence. He nestles in a bed of prestigious cultural capital (classical music, Shakespeare, etc.), is both aristocratic AND a product of meritocratic self-advancement. The people he respects are the people who work within the system and submit themselves to it, yet he retains his individuality by his eccentricities and private interests. He saves the day via his personal intellect and bravery, even combating his own establishment structure when it errs in its commitment to individualism or to liberal values (assumed in Trek to usually be the basis of law).

Kirk has something of MacMurphy about him… they’re both lustful, self-gratifying, unscrupulous men of appetite.  Kirk is often said to have a rebellious streak, a tendency to disobey orders and buck authority... though this is more talked about than actually seen.  But Kirk's disobedience can also be seen as evidence of his individualism.  He has more than a touch of Emersonian 'Self Reliance'.  He's the libertarian who refuses to be bound by the pronouncements of the state when he knows what's right and what he has to do.  He is like the rugged frontiersman of American folk myth, albeit seasoned with democratic sentiments (the retrospective liberal justification). He's the 'rough diamond' who leads the wagon train and carves civilization into the face of the wilderness.  Whereas MacMurphy (more of a 60s radical) is explicitly shown to ally himself with the Chief (the silent Indian patient who narrates the novel), Kirk (a 60s authority figure seasoned with a rebellious streak) has to fight and tame the barbarians.

One Person's 'Frontier' (Final or Not) is Another Person's Home

Both Kirk and Picard confront various orientalist stereotypes, re-imagined as aliens, who block the slow and peaceful advance of liberal civilization into the empty wilderness where no man has gone before (though there are plenty of people living there, they just don't count since they're not 'men')... but Kirk's bunch are more straightforwardly swarthy and cruel and decadent and inscrutable and villainous.  Picard encounters the Klingons as noble savages with whom a civilised man can negotiate, whereas for Kirk they were generally just Machiavellian baddies of a kind so generic that they could be commies one week, Arabs the next.

By the way... it's astounding that apparently intelligent people can tout Star Trek as a great example of progressivism in popular culture, given just how many racial stereotypes the various captains meet out there in space.  Yes, Kirk kissed Uhura (well, they turned their faces to one side as though they were kissing, in case the sight of a white man's lips actually touching those of a black woman caused a wave of suicides and heart attacks amongst the viewing public) but Uhura was only allowed to be black woman because she was, essentially, manning the switchboard.  (One might wonder in passing what would've happened to a script which called for a white woman to kiss a black man.)

Inalienable Rights

The problem with all these rugged individualists is that they tie in to one of the most persistent ideological notions of capitalist society: that the individual subject is the locus of human life. The individual strives and fights and wins… or goes under. That’s the professed morality of business because it expresses the ruthless competition of the market, and it finds its way into every corner of social life under capitalism.  Even liberal tolerance has been co-opted by neoliberalism via libertarianism, which - in its full form - ties the freedom of the individual to the freedom of the market.

Individualism lends itself to reactionary socio-cultural politics. Bad individuals are to blame for complex social problems. Britain is ‘broken’ by benefit cheats and deadbeat dads and kids with no respect.

Individualism is a readymade tool for those who wish to defend an economic system that impoverishes billions while loading the wealth upon a tiny minority who are parasitic upon the many who actually do all the work producing value.  Wealth is created by thrusting entrepreneurs, self-made men, brilliant businessmen and economic geniuses. Such people must be rewarded for their commercial heroism in order to make sure they keep on spewing out the ambrosia of wealth, which will then trickle down upon the lesser mortals.  The most sustained attempt to systematise the basis of such ideas in philosophy - Objectivism - ended as a personality cult around its founder, Ayn Rand.

If we have problems with how our government behaves, we can blame individual baddies and vote for individual saviours. Failed in life? You should’ve tried harder. Depressed? Pull yourself together. Don’t like the government? Vote for a different Prime Minister. Etc. It's a multi-purpose, one-size-fits-all idea.

In genre and fantasy, the individual hero is omnipresent. Holmes, Bond, Batman, Potter, Skywalker… the Doctor.  Even MacMurphy and Yossarian are individualists. Maybe such figures sometimes oppose Power, but there’s still something ambivalent about the way they do so by themselves and for themselves. There’s something in the radical idea of the brave individual who opposes conformity and obedience and injustice which tessellates with the reactionary libertarian bourgeois obsession with individual ‘self made’ men, fighting and succeeding through their own strength.

The Final Promotion

When in mystical mode, the show tends to imagine that "the next step in our evolution" will be the achievement of a kind of quasi-mystical, post-physical godhood through the acquisition of sufficient scientific, technological and moral knowledge or power.  The moral superiority is usually supposed to come from a fusion of human emotions (just the good ones) with technological advancement.  This fuses:

i) the idealised view of science as Promethean and progressive, a motor/guarantor of modern liberal civilisation etc., all evidence of a certain confidence in technology stemming from the long post-war boom;

ii) a form of mysticism which prizes personal transcendence and self-realisation... very 60s-70s;

iii) a sort of benignant, sanitised Social-Darwinism which sees evolution as an upward progression.

It will be noticed that the linking threads here are 'progress', individualism, success.  Godhood is usually achieved by individuals as a kind of reward for their superior bravery, morality, love, etc.  It's like the 'First Earth Battalion', melding the martial virtues and the rise up through the ranks with detumescent 60s-70s mystical self-actualisation.

1 comment:

  1. Do you think the same kind of individualism holds for Lord of the Rings? While some of Jackson's modifications seem to allow for it (eg I recall the book version of Faramir as providing help to Frodo and Sam), it seems like the books' heroes are often hitting up against their own lack of capability and relying on others for help. Instead, its characters seem to gather strength from a nostalgic impulse, rather than ST's technocratic one. I get the sense that its essentially anti-liberal.

    Have any shows struck you as presenting an alternative paradigm to the liberal bourgeois one you describe here? The proliferation of the apocalypse genre seems to play on the same themes here: individuals rising above society, gathering the power to do what's *necessary* (usually over the say so of schoolmarm-like opposition), nail-biting action montages, weak reflections on the dangers of too much power followed by sentimental admission that it is/was *necessary*, etc... Are these techniques just more entertaining or easier to portray or are there other models out there that don't succumb to the same critiques?